Friday Film : Tenet review by Jeremy Hall

TENET – Review


Do you remember that blissful 3 week lull in your life, sandwiched between the last visit to a normal court (for me: Dartford….) and the diary going nuts with remote hearings?  Stupidly, I thought it would be a good idea to spend the time painting the exterior of my house, rather than eating too much and watching The Sopranos all over again like normal people.  Even though I was thoroughly fed up with the exercise, mid-morning, on day one, I kept going, partly because a half-painted house looks ridiculous, and partly because I discovered the wonderful world of the Desert Island Discs archive which kept me entertained as I slapped away.   It’s surprising how quickly that format strips away the pretence and gets to the essentials – and how quickly my views changed about people I thought I had set opinions about.  (Thom Yorke?  Oh dear…..)


Christopher Nolan’s interview was a gem.  He came across as a thoughtful, modest man, careful in his replies, with a fascinating insight into modern film-making and his rather idiosyncratic methods deployed since first borrowing his dad’s super8 camera as a 7 year old.    He shoots on proper film and won’t use the ubiquitous picture boards; he gets the actors there in front of him and sees how the scene develops as they go along.  Filming is never held up because of the weather.  And of course, he is obsessed with dimensions, and in particular the distortion and interruption of time and memory.  I’ve loved all of his films since being transfixed by Memento all those years ago and since then he has managed the clever trick of delivering hugely popular blockbusters without compromising their complex, intelligent themes.


His latest massive project, Tenet, has just been released, exclusively to cinemas.  Like the latest Bond film, it’s been in the can for a while but the release has been delayed, and still hasn’t opened in the States yet.  The decision to go for it remains a huge gamble – will people dare go back to the cinema to watch it?  007 remains a scaredy cat – creeping around behind the curtain, waiting to see how Tenet gets on.

In our household, not going to see Tenet in the cinema on the opening night was never an option, buoyed by some early uber-positive reviews.


But reader, oh my goodness, let me get this over with:-  This Movie Is A Mess.


It is a spy thriller.  It is 2 ½ hours long and contains some of the most extraordinary action sequences you’ll ever see.  The acting performances are, as far as I can tell, wonderful.  The locations, the music, and all the other stuff that you’d expect to blow your hair off are all there.  The score in particular, not by Hans Zimmer this time but with the Zimmer-like ‘BWAAAHM’ sound very evident, adds real urgency to the action scenes with clever use of reversed recording.  But there is one central difficulty, and it’s a big one.  At no point in the film, from the first explosive few minutes onwards, is it possible to work out what the hell is going on.

The plot – and don’t worry, if I wanted to serve up spoilers I couldn’t – concerns an attempt to foil a baddy from manipulating time and thus destroying the world.    The breath-taking opening sequence, shot in the Kiev Opera House, introduces us to the protagonist in the form of actor John David Washington, who, in the single nod to being helpful to the audience, is actually named ‘The Protagonist’, so at least that bit isn’t confusing.  The rest of the plot is utterly impenetrable, not made any better by clunking bits of exposition shoe-horned between fights.  Instead of serving to explain, these scenes merely made me feel thick.  How does the ability to catch a bullet going backwards in a gun threaten the existence of the world?  What is that weird metal thing?  Why is this brilliant car chase being spoilt by someone driving backwards in a comfortable BMW executive saloon?  Don’t ask me, mate.


I’m sure that many will argue, as have the mainstream critics, that all of this understanding-the-plot business doesn’t matter.  But it does, certainly to you and me, who are trained to fret about narratives that we can’t understand.  It may be that multiple viewings of this film, coupled with a careful reading of the spods’ threads on Reddit, will reveal all.  But in my estimation, Nolan has spent too many rainy afternoons in his bedroom mapping out the plot on a giant piece of A3 and not enough time ensuring that there is at least the bare bones of cause and effect up there on the screen for us to follow.   Without it, character development flies out of the window – none of us gave a toss about any of the cast, with the possible exception of the baddy’s wife, played by Elizbeth Debicki.  There is a reason for that.  Her role, as far as I could tell, was identical to the one she so brilliantly played in the Night Manager, which, in an irony even Nolan himself might enjoy, I was able to appreciate through the memory of her performance opposite another evil arms dealer, played by Hugh Laurie.

Nolan fans – I am sorry to be so negative.  It isn’t the fact that he picks up and plays so relentlessly with time and its various dimensions – we expect and demand that of him.   Perhaps you will enjoy all the noise and cars and planes and fights.  There’s a really good one in a restaurant kitchen which will live long in the memory.  His tics and quirks are all there – Michael Caine is wheeled out, and another favourite, Sir Kenneth Branagh, plays the evil Russian arms dealer with a hammy cod-Russian accent.  [Point of order – doesn’t this discriminate against actual Russians in the casting process?  Should there be a Twitter storm?].

Perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that after a decade or two entertaining the audiences with his plotlines, he has decided to entertain himself.  Who knows?  The night after we went to see Tenet, my son and I watched Interstellar again on the telly.  Now that’s a film!


Jeremy Hall