Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon, ©2019 Warner Bros
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3 out of 5 stars

Christopher Nolan’s frosty espionage sci-fi delivers visual intensity but little heart

Phil de Semlyen

Time Out says

Two parts ersatz Bond movie to one part hard-sci-fi mind-scrambler, Tenet is a blockbuster with huge ambitions: it’s not just here to save cinema, it wants to reinvent the way you process its very visual grammar. Christopher Nolan’s films usually come with an envelope-pushing experimental edge, albeit one lubricated by seven-figure budgets, and this one feels like his most lab-coated effort yet. Visual information comes at you in multiple directions in massive action sequences that offer little respite from the brain-bending ideas being chucked about. In Imax, and accompanied by Ludwig Göransson’s blaring, Hans Zimmer-channelling score, it gets pretty close to cortisol-inducing. 

Initially, Tenet lulls you with an opening hour full of exotic locales – Mumbai, Italy, London and a variety of Scandinavian and Baltic locations – plenty of brainy exposition and men in scalpel-sharp suits. A slickly mounted siege of a Ukrainian opera house introduces John David Washington’s (BlacKkKlansman) deep-cover US operative, ‘the Protagonist’. He’s soon wriggling out of a tight spot involving some Russian heavies and a set of pliers, and charged with investigating an existential threat involving a mysterious palindrome, ‘Tenet’, and the concept of ‘time inversion’ – the idea that time can move backwards as well as forwards.

Needless to say, this discovery is not being used to amend Deliveroo orders. The Protagonist learns from Clémence Poésy’s scientist that it has opened new and terrifying avenues for a villain with a grudge against humanity. ‘Your duty transcends national interests: this is about survival,’ the Protagonist is told by an Agency wonk. ‘Whose?’ he asks. ‘Everyone’s.’ 

It begins to feel like that man-on-a-mission spy movie you’ve seen plenty of times before. A nice scene in a Mayfair members’ club in which Michael Caine dispenses intel and witticisms as an MI6 spymaster only reinforces the feeling of a conventional spy thriller taking shape (the Inception parallels are striking up to this point). A bang-on-form Robert Pattinson pops up as in a kind of 008 role, offering the elegant dissolution of a Graham Greene antihero as the Protagonist’s kind-of sidekick. A counterfeit Goya shapes up as a fun McGuffin to get the plot moving. There’s a short, sharp fight scene that does for kitchens what Eastern Promises did for steam rooms.

And that’s when Tenet unleashes its cargo of Kip Thorne-grade theoretical physics (Nolan’s Interstellar collaborator gets an acknowledgement in the credits here) and visual trickery on you. It’s like flicking from the funnies to the most fiendish Sudoku puzzle ever devised.

You’ll need to bring your A-game – this is not a blockbuster to relax into – even if you’d be hard pressed to argue that Nolan has. As with Inception and Interstellar, it’s a movie designed to be unpacked over multiple viewings and maybe a podcast or two. Its pointillist plot details race by, especially during a maximalist third act that repeats some of the flaws of The Dark Knight Rises – the bleak world of Tenet is of a piece with Nolan’s morally corroded Gotham – and a sense of overload kicks in as multiplex action sequences are staged, reversed and restaged from a different perspective. Following Dunkirk’s trio of interlocking timelines is a cinch by comparison. The challenge isn’t so much keeping up as hanging in there.

Tenet’s spell is more resistible, its emotional core more muted, than its director’s very best work. The stakes are enormous and minimal, all at once. The cast wrestles to elevate their characters beyond spy-flick ciphers. As charismatic as Washington is, the Protagonist makes for chilly, oddly unknowable company as he crosses swords with Kenneth Branagh’s Russian arms dealer. Elizabeth Debicki, who played the abused wife of an amoral arms dealer to much better effect in The Night Manager, frets over a son we’re barely introduced to. It’s a glaring oversight in a movie that depends on the relationship for emotional ballast. Branagh’s growly Russian superbad, meanwhile, counts among his key character traits slugging vodka, wearing high-waisted trousers and obsessing over his Fitbit.

Nolan devotees will still get a kick out of Tenet’s cerebral ideas and no doubt forgive its overloaded climax, while the more casual cinemagoer will get plenty of bang for their buck amid its vast visuals (cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema drenches the Nordic location in cool slate greys, while one clifftop shot of the Amalfi Coast is utterly beguiling). And after five months stuck in front of the small screen, maybe being a little overwhelmed is no bad thing. But it’s hard to escape the sense that less might have been more.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Christopher Nolan
  • Screenwriter:Christopher Nolan
  • Cast:
    • Robert Pattinson
    • John David Washington
    • Kenneth Branagh
    • Himesh Patel
    • Clémence Poésy
    • Elizabeth Debicki
    • Aaron Taylor-Johnson
    • Michael Caine
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