Tenet: Christopher Nolan throws time for a loop

Nolan’s latest brainteaser blockbuster builds a rollercoaster spectacle out of temporal spaghetti.

27 August 2020

By Philip Kemp

John David Washington as The Protagonist in Tenet
Sight and Sound

Christopher Nolan, it seems, loves time the way certain chefs love full-dairy cream – as an infinitely versatile and readily mutable ingredient to enrich and enhance his work in multiple guises. Right from his debut feature, the micro-budget Following (1998) – where the outward appearance of the main character tells us where in the non-linear narrative we find ourselves – he’s relished playing games with time: running it backwards (Memento, 2000), juggling it in a sleight-of-hand double/triple exposure (The Prestige, 2006), sectioning it into interlocking dream-levels (Inception, 2010), squirrelling it into alternative universes through wormholes in space-time (Interstellar, 2014). Even Dunkirk (2017), relatively linear by Nolan standards, layered three differently-paced time-lines on top of each other.

Tenet, we learn quite early on, doesn’t exactly repeat any of these operations – nor does it primarily deal with time-travel as such. What it does involve, we and the film’s protagonist (played by John David Washington, and known only as The Protagonist) are told, is ‘time inversion’, ‘entropy reversal’ and ‘time pincer movements’. Much of this recondite information comes courtesy of Clémence Poésy (rather wasted in the Basil Exposition role as scientist Laura) who warns Protagonist that he shouldn’t “try to understand it” since “you’re not here for what, you’re here for how”, while demonstrating these intricate temporal phenomena with bullets that go backwards in time, from target to gun. “Try to keep up,” he’s further exhorted as the implausibilities accumulate, and later solicitously asked, “Does your head hurt yet?” Well, can’t say we weren’t warned.

Nolan has mentioned on occasion that he’d rather like to direct a Bond movie, and for much of its 2½-hour running time Tenet comes across as an 007 romp that’s been force-fed a course in temporal relativity and advanced nuclear physics. (Nobel Prize-winning physicist Kip Thorne, Nolan’s consultant on Interstellar, shows up again here in the credits.) As the film’s palindromic title hints, quite a lot of the action runs both forwards and backwards, often simultaneously on screen, making for some impressively virtuosic spectacle. When it comes to action sequences Nolan has never lacked ambition, and we’re plunged into them right from the get-go with an ultra-violent terrorist attack on the Kiev Opera House (actually shot in Tallinn). Excitement, it’s evident, won’t be lacking.

Tenet (2020)

Emotion, though, perhaps will be. An often-voiced criticism of Inception was that with all its ingenuity it left us so busy thinking, “Oh hang on, which level are we on now?” that it was difficult to become emotionally engaged; and the same goes double – or more – for Tenet.

It doesn’t help that there’s little chemistry between Washington’s Protagonist and Kat (the elegantly statuesque Elizabeth Debicki, essentially reprising her role from The Night Manager). She’s the abused wife of the chief villain, snarling Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (a richly hammy Kenneth Branagh), and since rescuing her – along with preventing Sator’s planned extinction of the universe in a time-reversed holocaust – is presented as a key motivation for the hero, it leaves a crucial gap in the texture.

There’s a warmer relationship (almost indeed a bromance) between the Protagonist and his suave British ally Neil, played by an appealingly debonair, linen-suited Robert Pattinson. For effortless suavity, though, Pattinson can’t compete with Michael Caine in his eighth Nolan movie, showing up in a London clubland cameo and gifted some diverting lines in a film not overstocked with humour. When the Protagonist suggests the Brits have a monopoly of snobbery, Caine retorts, “Not a monopoly – more a controlling interest.”

John David Washington as The Protagonist in Tenet (2020)

There are some odd lacunae, not least the matter of that palindromic title. “All I have for you is a word: Tenet”, the Protagonist is told as he’s recruited into the ultra-secret agency. “It will open the right doors; some of the wrong ones too. Use it carefully.” But in fact he scarcely uses it at all.

Still, the gaps – logical, narrative or emotional – hardly matter in the face of the sheer overwhelming build-up of visual and aural stimulation; Ludwig Göransson’s pulsating Wagner-meets-electronica score hypes up the action potently, and Nolan throws in one ultra-dynamic set-piece after another, even as the plot turns ever more incomprehensible. The film looks magnificent, too, shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema on IMAX and 70mm and flitting from one international location to the next: Estonia, Italy, India, Denmark, Norway, the US… As ever, Nolan shuns green-screen fakery. “This film was shot and finished on film”, an end-title proudly asserts. And it shows.

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