Dir: Christopher Nolan. Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine. 12A cert, 149 mins
I’m not saying that Christopher Nolan’s mind does actually operate outside the bounds of the space-time continuum. But if it did, would you be all that surprised? Nolan’s films - like his latest, an Oscar and Bafta winner for special effects - tend to be years in the devising and crafting, but they’ve lately been arriving at eerily apposite moments.
Dunkirk preempted the great reexamination of the British national character that blew in with Brexit, while The Dark Knight Rises, the last part of his Batman trilogy, turned a cartoonish comic-book villain into a populist demagogue in 2012, four years ahead of the curve.
Now, as the planet attempts to lurch out of lockdown, we have Tenet: a film set at what feels like the entropic endpoint of human progress, whose protagonist has to learn to live masked in a world running backwards.
That protagonist is known as nothing more than The Protagonist, and he is played outstandingly by John David Washington, whose ability to leaven desperation with urbanity and grace calls to mind James Stewart’s great performances for Alfred Hitchcock. (So do his suits.) Washington is a secret agent tasked with investigating a strange new black market technology that is capable of “inverting the entropy” of people and objects – that is, it switches the direction in which they move through time, at least as we perceive it.
“Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” Clémence Poésy’s physics whizz suggests, which proves sound advice, since the plot is quite literally the opposite of straightforward. As Washington investigates the provenance of inverted bullets – “relics of a future war”, Poésy calls them – he is drawn into a far-reaching conspiracy involving the Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (an enjoyably bloodcurdling Kenneth Branagh), a child of one of the Soviet ‘hidden cities’ of the Cold War era whose temporal meddlings could end up jackknifing reality itself.
The Nolan project that Tenet most closely resembles is his existential heist thriller Inception, from 2010. But while Inception’s nested-worlds premise could be explained in the abstract – and in fact was, for much of its opening hour – the mechanics of Tenet only really make sense when you’re watching them work, since to put them into words you’d probably have to invent a new tense first. In line with its palindromic title, the film’s action set-pieces fold neatly down the middle, with characters moving through them in both chronological directions.
Nolan’s eye for spectacle is as hawklike as ever, but it’s the uncanny juxtaposition of backward and forward movement – as seen in, for instance, a fist fight between Washington and an inverted opponent – that proves to be Tenet’s defining effect.
This is hardly unexplored cinematic terrain: throughout his career, the great surrealist Jean Cocteau was a reverse-motion addict, while in his 1927 film October, Sergei Eisenstein offered the chilling vision of a toppled statue of the Tsar heaving itself back aloft as the counterrevolutionary forces went on the attack.
But Nolan’s films have always been less concerned with showing you new things than making you look at the world in new ways. As with Inception’s anti-gravity corridor walk – which was first pulled off by Douglas Fairbanks in 1919 – a silent-era technique is made to feel as fresh as the day it was first seen through feats of unparalleled imaginative force.
Plotting, choreographing and editing the thing must have been a living nightmare, yet watching it is often thrillingly intuitive. Tenet is stitched through with subliminal clues and ingenious shorthand, from reversed sound effects and music – Ludwig Göransson, rather than Hans Zimmer, wrote the shuddering, synth-driven score – to those supremely haunting masks, which indicate the wearer is operating in rewind, since normal air is toxic to inverted lungs.
Feeling your heart and brain race to keep up is a significant part of the fun here, and in that unique and unmistakable Nolan-esque way, there is a series of exhilarating mental snaps whenever the two temporal perspectives intermesh, like the teeth on opposite sides of a zip. As for the parts you won’t and can’t, appreciate first time around – well, rewatching is always an option. If Tenet does revive the British box office, as cinemas are praying it will, that will be down in no small part to the fact you have to see it at least three times to be sure you understood it.
Washington, you’ll be relieved to hear, is as adrift in all of this as we are. But at least he has a handful of allies, foremost among them Robert Pattinson’s Neil, a crumpled expat he meets in Mumbai, on a mission that involves a reverse bungee-jump up the flank of a crumbling high-rise. (Again, the tailoring is to die for: in one sequence, Pattinson’s subtly checked double-breasted jacket made me gasp in a way I’d more typically associate with the brachiosaur scene in Jurassic Park.)
Michael Caine, Nolan’s longtime talisman, plays a silvery MI6 spook in a single scene that’s by turns droll and poignant, while Elizabeth Debicki is the upper-crust English wife of Branagh’s oligarch, and an inspired 21st century spin on the Hitchcock blonde.
The depth, subtlety and wit of Pattinson and Debicki’s performances only becomes fully apparent once you know where Tenet is going, or perhaps that should be where it’s been. Still confused? Don’t be. Or rather do be, and savour it. This is a film that will cause many to throw up their hands in bamboozlement – and many more, I hope, to clasp theirs in awe and delight.
In UK cinemas today