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With the second Corona wave upon us, something inevitable given public irresponsibility and governmental mismanagement, it’s not the best time to release a potential blockbuster like TENET. Camus braved a near empty cinema six weeks later…
 
 

“To do what I do, I need some idea of the threat we face.”
“As I understand it, we're trying to prevent World War III.”
“I'm not seeing Armageddon here. Nuclear holocaust?”
“No. Something worse.”

  Laura (Clémence Poésy) filling in ‘The Protagonist’
(John David Washington) in Tenet

 

Note: For the capsule review, jump to the 5th paragraph. The August 26th entry was written on the day Tenet opened in the UK, six weeks ago at time of writing. It’s one of several potential blockbusters still stalled at the gate. Its lack of stellar success (probably entirely due to Covid) has scared Bond back to April next year and who knows when the others will dare to open. There are some stories that suggest Mulan, which mostly went to Disney’s streaming service (and charging almost $30 a pop to view) may yet make as much as its potential theatrical run. Perhaps Tenet’s producers may have to bite the temporally inverted bullet and let their huge production on to (deep breath) domestic screens way earlier than usual. Sad news yesterday about the (one hopes) temporary closure of the Cineworld cinema chain both in US and UK… It’s the end of the world.

 

August 26th 2020:

You know things are not right when one of your several monthly film magazines starts doing multi-page articles on the props of a TV show. Sigh. Cine Outsider is a modest engine that needs film-shaped fuel to run (just add time and passion) and with production and exhibition in some Covid-inspired free fall, all movie outlets are feeling the pinch. Not being able to go to the cinema is an almost physical ache. When I don’t have the time to cover Blu-rays stuffed to the gills with marvellous but very time-consuming extras, I used to dip in and out of the cinema to keep my review contributions buoyant and relatively frequent. You know what’s coming, right? I miss my cinema trips greatly and figured that when the time was right and we could all relax, things will return to ‘normal’. I’m now not sure there will be another ‘normal’ in my lifetime. This didn’t really come home to me yesterday as much as exploded in my face. I do not think of myself as excessively selfish. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet opens in cinemas in my nearest city this morning (45 mins to go to its first screening at time of writing and six weeks ago from this time of writing). Nolan does ‘big’ and to wait until I can see it on a small screen seemed almost criminal. Clapping my hands with a ‘looking forward to it’ glee, I mentioned the film to my wife. She pulled the pin… “Sure. If you think it’s worth risking catching a potentially lethal virus, bringing it home and infecting me, then it’s your call.” And boom! Emerging from this explosion of logic and good sense, sooty faced, vintage comedy style, I weighed up my passion against my good sense. My passion was knocked out flat and not getting up anytime soon. But wait…

I just watched the movie themed animation that the Odeon Group has posted on their sites showing you how safe it is to now go to the cinema. There’s the two-metre rule for queuing, masked and sanitising assistants abound and there’s an empty two-seat distance between you and anyone else though they let families sit together. I rushed to my loved one to tell her the news. Passion wearily makes it to its feet only to be smacked down onto the canvas once more. “Cinemas are enclosed indoor spaces with poor air circulation.” Her logic was unassailable. The only conclusion to reach, a relatively heartbreaking one, was that if I was going to see Tenet on the big screen it would have to be late in its run rendering a cinema review all but useless. For that I humbly apologise and also for the lack of reviews from my end. It feels wrong and the site suffers. Slarek is stepping up to the plate when time and pain levels allow and I feel I’m letting him down. In two weeks I’ll be in quarantine for another two and so will pick a Blu-ray or two and fire out a few reviews during that time paid work allowing. (I reviewed Enola Holmes in that time).

John David Washington in Tenet

Knowing I was returning to mainland Europe to work in three weeks time, I came up with a scheme. See Tenet on day one abroad after the safest possible journey via private car and ferry and then ‘quarantine’ in the cutting room (this is called ‘work’) for three weeks and only go home again if I’m symptom free and my temperature is normal. Everyone’s happy… unless I catch the damn thing. This really is the oddest time to be alive. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to be breathing (albeit carefully in selected areas with mask if necessary) but ever since I was a child I’ve had the semi-comforting sense that the world was run by adults who knew what they were doing and had learned painful lessons from a barbaric history, one that still seems hard to accept in the era of extreme wokeness and hair trigger sensitivity. Yes, I may have despised what the politicians were actually doing but the cogs and wheels of general governance continued with a little oil and a lot of activity behind the scenes that was simply too dull to engage with. Politics just got on with itself.

Brexit and Trump slammed reasonable fingers in that car door in that one terrible year only matched by the one we are living through right now.

 

4th October 2020:

So with a Covid infected Trump due out to continue his gutter-dredging campaign for re-election on Monday infecting all he deigns to receive his exalted presence, I cautiously ventured out to see Tenet in a decidedly unpacked cinema, the only time I would call that a win. I understand the virus has kept the normal crowds away and for Nolan and his team, this is a real shame as it’s a movie that really has to be seen as big as you can see it. Plot: Dare I? Am I able to provide one? An extremely capable operative is part of a special ops team taking care of a terrorist attack on a music performance. After open air torture Ukrainian-style and attempted suicide to protect his team he is deemed very worthy and brought into the fold of Tenet, a clandestine global group of operatives involved in finding temporally inverted weaponry (it gets a bit bewildering here). It seems the future is sending weapons and intelligence back to the past in an effort to get the past to… OK. Remember Bane and his mask in The Dark Knight Rises? Tom Hardy is a charismatic, intelligent and thoughtful actor. But no matter the years of vocal training spent in drama school, you face a new set of challenges if you have to verbalise and emote wearing a mask. Rises came under fire publically for the incoherence of this character and the general muddiness of the sound mix. This is from my review of Rises… I was hoping this would never sound familiar…

Ninety per cent of cinemagoers will hear the line once and if you don't catch it, you lose the line but crucially you lose whatever plot point is hinged on that line. For me personally (and I agree this is my problem not Christopher Nolan's) I missed about a quarter of the dialogue. My son and I were regularly exchanging "What did he say?" questions throughout the screening. That's not good. I was suitably immersed but I could have been better informed if my ears and to some small extent, the presentation of the mix hadn't let me down.

Action in Tenet

Well, forget missing a quarter of the dialogue. In Tenet I didn’t catch about 60 per cent and that holed the movie for me. Can I pass on some of the responsibility for that to Nolan and not my own ears this time? So many conversations in masks and so much clarity sacrificed for an exciting low frequency heavy final mix. One of the best dubbing mixers the UK has produced is Graham V. Hartstone (now retired). How good is the best? Try this lot and they’re from a long list: Pink Floyd The Wall (my top pick for best cinematic sound), Blade Runner, Aliens, Legend, and Eyes Wide Shut. His IMDb listing will make you gasp. His first (ahem) tenet of film mixing was that “Dialogue is the most important element of the mix.” The danger on every film is that the post-production crew have heard the dialogue hundreds of times. Once a line is known it cannot be unknown. I cannot confirm that Bane’s dialogue was remixed after complaints at the IMAX presentation but there is a YouTube before and after so maybe it is true… But that’s a Batman movie. I know the narrative iconography and can guess a missed word or sentence. In Tenet, we are dealing with the complexities of inverted time. So I didn’t get the rules so I was utterly lost. This makes it bloody difficult to care and extremely difficult to emerge into the dark with any sense of whether the film was a good one or not. The only guide to this was that my friend was able to read the Dutch subtitles and therefore followed all the brain twisting logic on display because it was literally spelled out for him. I just whispered “What?” and “Huh?” what seemed once every five minutes. If I don’t understand I can’t engage. In fact I got frustrated which as George Lucas might remind us “…leads to anger.” You cannot afford to get lost in a time going forwards and backwards movie so all I could do was enjoy the visuals that certainly did not adhere to the Hitchcock maxim that a good film could lose its soundtrack and you could still follow the plot. If Sir Alfred had been able to see Tenet, he may have revised his theory.

Tenet is without question an astounding film full of visual spectacle, Bond-like globetrotting and stunts and reality in place of artifice and CG. Great. But most of that counts for nought if you simply do not know what the hell is going on. Connecting the hero to a woman who is about to lose her child to her megalomaniacal, part Russian psycho billionaire oligarch, was a way to keep human emotion as part of the plot but in the end the film was all about accepting a reverse time world which I’m sure theoretical physicists would argue could be possible. The actors are fine. Denzel’s son, a burly athletic John David Washington very convincingly plays the hard man lead, a character so essential to the shenanigans, he has no name and is known only as ‘The Protagonist’. Ex-Cullen and proving himself to be a sharp and talented character actor, Robert Pattison, is his knowledgeable, mysterious partner and the tall and svelte Elizabeth Debicki plays the mother. Returning to his Slavic villainy (he was the Russian bad guy in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Kenneth Branagh plays the conduit of the future, bad guy supreme Sator. Branagh has an easy charm as an actor and has to be a particularly good one to convince me of Sator’s extreme cruelty and his casual murdering ways. I’m sure Sir Ken enjoyed playing the role but his edges were just a little soft for me to buy his explosive rage and controlling tyranny one hundred per cent.

As usual with Nolan, all collaborators are at the top of their game. It’s such a personal pity that I couldn’t enjoy all the great work that went into making a film I simply could not understand because the dialogue was unintelligible. As Pattison’s character Neil says on more than one occasion “What’s happened, happened.” So maybe I just need to watch it again… from the end backwards, with English sub-titles. That’s really not the stupidest idea I’ve ever had. Go and sevlesruoy rof egduj.

Tenet poster
Tenet

UK/USA 2020
150 mins
directed by
Christopher Nolan
produced by
Christopher Nolan
Emma Thomas
written by
Christopher Nolan
cinematography
Hoyte Van Hoytema
editing
Jennifer Lame
music
Ludwig Göransson
production design
Nathan Crowley
starring
John David Washington
Robert Pattinson
Elizabeth Debicki
Kenneth Branagh
Michael Caine
Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Dimple Kapadia
Himesh Patel
Clémence Poésy
Andrew Howard
Yuri Kolokolnikov

UK distributor
Warner Brothers
UK release date
26 August 2020
review posted
6 October 2020

related reviews
The Prestige
Batman Begins
The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight Rises
Inception
Dunkirk

See all of Camus' reviews