No stranger to brain-spinning, synapse-stretching, conceptually daring must-watch films, Christopher Nolan has come up with a dizzying spy movie that will leave you scratching your head for days. And for much of Tenet’s 150-minute running time, John David Washington’s hero, known only as the Protagonist, shares our befuddlement.
The disorientation begins when, following a ferocious terrorist siege at the Kiev Opera House, he finds himself inducted into a beyond-secret agency, the Tenet organisation, and given the task of saving the world from an apocalyptic threat.
His mission involves thwarting the nefarious schemes of Kenneth Branagh’s exceptionally vile Russian oligarch with the aid of the oligarch’s estranged wife (Elizabeth Debicki) and of the enigmatic partner in espionage he gains early on, played with raffish charm by Robert Pattinson.
So far, so James Bond. Add the film’s sharp suits and globe-trotting locations (including Estonia, Italy’s Amalfi Coast, India, Denmark and Norway) and you get the sense that Nolan is scratching that ‘I want to direct a Bond movie’ itch apparent in the alpine lair attack in Inception, a clear homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But this is James Bond with a very big twist.
Washington’s mission has as much to do with sci-fi as it does with espionage and sees him grappling with the physics of time and inverting the flow of entropy. The notion of time travelling backwards allows Nolan to throw in some truly eye-and-mind boggling scenes – including hand-to-hand combat in which one antagonist’s actions are inverted.
But there remains a sense that Nolan has got his cinematic mission back to front. Yes, he’s giving us a cerebral workout, yet we could also do with more visceral thrills and romance, and a bigger sense of fun. Washington does make an impressively rugged hero, but on this outing he’s surprisingly lacking in charisma, and he strikes fewer sparks with Debicki’s heroine than he does with Pattinson’s cooly ironic sidekick – their rapport echoing Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains’ beautiful friendship in Casablanca. Debicki’s presence meanwhile recalls her role in The Night Manager, in which her character was also unhappily partnered with an obscenely wealthy arms dealer, but there’s none of the prickling tension of that series’ hero-villain-heroine triangle. Indeed, even though the fate of the world hangs in the balance here, the emotional stakes seem much lower.
Is Tenet worth seeing?
Despite these reservations, Tenet is still worth seeing – and on the biggest screen you can find, if only to make the most of Hoyte van Hoytema’s awesome cinematography and Ludwig Göransson’s rumbling, throbbing score. As ever, Nolan’s ambition deserves admiration, but we’d applaud more if his film had given us gut pleasures to match its cerebral ones.