TeneT – saving the world on inverted time

If you’re one of those wonderful people out there in the dark, then Tenet is the best way to celebrate the cinemas reopening, in IMAX, if possible. The film is big, bold, loud and spectacular. Spectacular spectacular. To keep this spoiler-free, I shall focus less on the plot and more on the performances, sound, music and direction. Suffice it to say that this Bond style action bonanza reads like a checklist of our society’s hottest ailments: billionaires running the world, climate emergency, nuclear (or is it?) bombs.

The film employs Nolan’s signature motif: time manipulation. It isn’t a Christopher Nolan film if we’re not playing with time! This time we’ve got inverted time! Wait, is he starting to get predictable? Let’s just say that with the likes of Inception, Dunkirk and The Prestige, some expectation for excellence had been set. With Tenet, that expectation was met. Somewhat.

John David Washington is not yet the best actor he could be (his father). However, he successfully carries the film with energy, aplomb and pure grit. The physicality of the role is nothing to be sniffed at, yet Washington makes it all look easy, reminding you that he used to be an NFL player and that you shouldn’t have doubted his stamina. He is The Protagonist every step of the way and the only one you can trust completely. Washington leads you through the merry-go-round that is Nolan’s brilliant mind and lands you back safely, grateful that cinema exists to bring you the much-needed thrill back into your life.

Even a Black Bond needs a trusty sidekick. Perhaps a smirking, cheeky looking Robert Pattinson might do the trick. For Pattinson’s fans, his career progression might not have come as a surprise. For someone like me, who has never seen a Twilight film in my life, seeing Cedric Digory become such an amazingly talented actor still surprises me, although he’s been doing incredible work for years. In Tenet, he harbours a secret, making you doubt his intentions. His gaze, his whole suave persona make you think he’s got a trick up his sleeve. But you’re hooked. You want more of him on screen because you want to guess his secret. He’s also fun to look at, with looks ranging from slick man in a dark suit to SWAT man to and my favourite – a hipsterish study in beige, complete with scruffy wool scarf.

The satire part of the programme is brought to you by a Russian-accented Kenneth Branagh. He’s what the future would look like, if the future were something concocted by the men who are leading the world right now. He has a bit of all of them: Boris Johnson’s luck, his charisma (or lack thereof) and the money Johnson wishes he had, Putin and Trump’s megalomania and Kim Jong-Un’s tyrannical streak. It’s really hard to say what trait belongs to what leader anymore, yet Branagh’s Andrei Sator has them all. Take a good look – this is what a human Thanos looks like. And what our future might look like in the age of the superego.

Elizabeth Debicki’s performance alone is as electrifying as the rest of the film. With very little dialogue she conveys a world of emotions, aided by an exquisitely chosen wardrobe. Her beauty is arresting yet too natural for the hitchockian icy blonde stereotype. She does remind us of Vertigo. Her tightly fitted dress suits she wears in the first half of the film suggest emotional manipulation, a life manufactured, posing as life. A forgery. She lives under the threat of her too powerful husband Sator (Branagh). She represents an exhilarating complication that provides all the necessary tension to The Protagonist’s mission. It can’t all be as easy as inverted time!

Nolan’s direction is masterfully done, as usual. It was clear that no expense has been spared. The action scenes are dizzying. The scenery is breath-taking, from Oslo, to Amalfi Coast to Mumbai, the cinematography is stunning. The fast-paced editing can really get that heart rate up, perhaps not all the way to 130, but over 89 anyway. Seen in IMAX, the film is truly a spectacle, especially with the earth-shattering music vibrating through the chairs, to the point of goosebumps and shivers down your spine. Ludwig Göransson really outdid himself on this innovative, thrilling score.

As cinema-going exercise, Tenet is more than a film, it’s an experience. As narrative, it feels slightly weak. In a post Covid-19 society, stories of a single fighter on a mission are a bit passé. We don’t need one perfect man to save the world. We don’t even need a handful of brilliant CIA men. We need everyone.  

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