Film Review: Tenet is an ambitious, visually stunning, inherently interesting, mind-numbingly confusing tale

There’s a scene relatively early in Christopher Nolan‘s ambitious time-bending actioner Tenet where Clemence Poesey is explaining to John David Washington‘s confused character – known only as The Protagonist – about the supposed science behind his forthcoming operation; “Don’t try to understand it” she assuredly states.

And it’s that advice that audiences best take when sifting through Tenet‘s 150 minute running time as the film rarely slows down to catch its own breath, let alone allow viewers to catch theirs.  It’s an ambitious, visually stunning, inherently interesting, at times mind-numbingly confusing tale that fuses time travel and the spy genre together in a manner that hopes to be grounded enough to be taken seriously.

In typical Nolan fashion, the narrative specifics of Tenet have been well kept under wraps, with the film’s alluring trailers doing little to clarify just what “Tenet” is.  And honestly, even if I wanted to spoil what comes about (I don’t, by the way) I don’t think I’d really be able to definitively describe what takes place as Nolan’s screenplay indulges in an array of thematics and genres, ultimately settling mainly on an elevated premise that could simply be described as “secret agent attempts to save the world”.

Yes, at its core, Tenet works with a tried and true premise around nuclear weaponising and the threat of global destruction.  But given that we’ve seen this play out countless times throughout cinematic history, why not subvert the familiar by inverting the ingredients.  Within literal seconds of Tenet starting we are thrust into an operatic set-piece that lightly informs us that The Protagonist is handy with a weapon and works as a government operative in some capacity.  It’s a scene we’ve seen before, but it’s over as quickly as it starts, and it isn’t long before The Protagonist is in a new confused state of mind, learning about an advanced science that embraces time manipulation and subsequent inversion.

It’s OK if you’re confused, and it appears that the film wants you to be as it never delves deeply into what it’s selling, merely hoping that the plethora of slickly produced action sequences that adopt such effects as reversing certain frames will distract you from the science at hand; one particular sequence involving The Protagonist and his operation partner, Neil (Robert Pattinson, effortlessly leaning into the action sensibilities he’s sure to adopt in next year’s Batman outing), as they map out a heist in an airport hanger, utilising a rogue plane as a form of distraction, is quite orgasmic for the eyes.

Regardless as to how one responds to Nolan’s storytelling decisions – both narratively and technically – his assembled cast are all more than willing and able to immerse themselves fully into Tenet‘s universe, with Washington and Pattinson equally honing the right amount of opposing bravado and uncertainty.  As with all good spy films though, it’s the foe and the femme that often leave the most lasting of impressions, and here Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki as the respective villain Sator and his suffering wife Kat lap up every inch of the screen they can.  Branagh never slips into nefarious caricature, even with his motives and occasional “typical villain” dialogue, instead maintaining a maliciousness that feels truly threatening, whilst Debicki, all 6 foot 3 inches of her, masterfully commands the screen with a quiet, devastating presence that warms us immediately to her, despite her at-times cold demeanour.

Like Memento, Inception, and Interstellar before it, Tenet is the type of picture that will benefit from multiple viewings, even if it’s just to try and catch some of the jargon dialogue.  It’s breathtaking at times, and frustrating at others, but even with all its near-detrimental ambition it’s a film that is at least trying to break a familiar mould.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Tenet is screening in most Australian cinemas from August 27th 2020.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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