Time Trials

Christopher Nolan’s latest cerebral blockbuster Tenet arrives, finally. Shrouded in secrecy, this high-concept espionage tale is the film Nolan fans have been waiting for. It’s also the film cinema exhibitors have desperately been hoping will lure people back to the cinemas. Shot in the IMAX format, its lush images of the Amalfi Coast by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema are worth braving theatres alone. But while this globe-hopping event movie has more than enough spectacle to satisfy anyone missing the big screen experience these past months, it’s also a phenomenal work-out for the brain.

Closest to Nolan’s Inception and Memento in its structural and narrative concerns, it’s also probably the closest the British-American filmmaker will come to making a James Bond movie. John David Washington (BlackKklansman) is the unnamed agent – dubbed the ‘Protagonist’ in the credits – recruited by a shadowy organisation to combat an unknown apocalyptic threat. As the trailers have already shown, he will be dealing with ‘time inversion’; his enemies seemingly possess the ability to reverse the entropy of objects and even people, sending them literally backwards in time.

It’s a mission that initially sends him to Mumbai, where he meets man-on-the-ground Neil (a rakish Robert Pattinson) and later into the orbit of Russian billionaire Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his near-estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Gradually introducing viewers to the ‘inversion’ concept, the script gets increasingly complex. Lines can be muffled in the sound mix, often obscured by Ludwig Göransson’s unsettling score. It makes decoding Tenet difficult at times, with so much of this world to take in and process.

Yet the film’s internal logic is faultless, with Nolan attempting to physically explore time-paradoxes in a vivid and explosive way. The set-pieces are jaw-dropping – a huge plane 747 crash, a bungee jump up a building, a motorway car chase like no other. Those looking for blockbuster thrills will find them, together with impeccably tailored costumes and a Brutalist aesthetic from production designer Nathan Crowley that taps into the film’s Soviet-era backdrop.

Washington is a muscular and charismatic guide through this sometimes baffling world; one kitchen fight, complete with cheese grater, will have you wincing. Pattinson is suitably debonair but it’s Branagh who truly terrifies as the ruthless Russian, particularly in scenes with Debicki that skate dangerously close to domestic abuse. Beyond all the trickery, this may be Nolan’s bleakest film, painting a world on the verge of catastrophe. Shimmering on the surface, shuddering beneath.

Tenet is in cinemas now. For more details, click here.

James Mottram