Tenet ★★★★½


For several months now, Tenet has been proclaimed as the film which might just save the movie theatre industry. A 200 million dollar, original property blockbuster, written and directed by one of the most reliable names in Hollywood, Christopher Nolan. The hopes were that Nolan might deliver a film that was so incredible – so quintessential – to see on the big screen that it would tempt people from their homes, with their huge televisions and home theatres and their PVOD accounts, and have them sit down in a large theatre with an appropriately distanced and mask-wearing crowd despite the ongoing threat from COVID-19.

Well I’m here to say, Tenet is so good, it might just achieve that.

An exhilarating mind-fuck of a ride from start to finish, Tenet is a film which absolutely demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It is simply gorgeous to look at, with Nolan extracting every ounce of beauty from some stunning locations, while cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema adds to his impressive resume, lensing everything gorgeously amidst a blue-grey world. His vision is impressively supported by the excellent editing of Jannifer Lame, who crafts a two and a half hour epic that does not have a wasted scene.

The action, too, is much improved from previous Nolan features, as it is far easier to follow what is happening on screen, even with the audience being put into the midst of some well-choreographed fights.

And those action scenes are only as impactful as they are, because Nolan and his talented cast bring to life some intriguing characters. John David Washington allows the weight of this film to settle on his mote than capable shoulders, and he is well supported by Robert Pattinson as his closest ally, Elizabeth Deblicki as a wealthy woman drawn into the evolving conflict, and perhaps most surprisingly, Kenneth Branagh as yet another dangerous player. A slight criticism, however, might be that the film sacrifices deeper characterisations for the thrill of the ride, even if compared to Nolan's last feature, Dunkirk, these characters are rich, nuanced and fully realised.

But make no mistake. The real star of Tenet is the complex and fascinating script which Nolan himself has this time written on his own. I’m going to remain vague to avoid all spoilers – because everyone should see this with as little foreknowledge as possible – but to craft a 150 minute action-thriller with a sci-fi bent which never once lets up for breath is a stunning achievement. Nolan holds the audience in the palm of his hand throughout its runtime and dares them to look away. Do so at your own risk, though, because the reveals come thick and fast throughout the film, with Nolan knowing exactly when to add the next tidbit of information which steps the audience closer toward achieving a sufficient understanding of what is happening. And let’s be clear here, it will just be a “sufficient” understanding after a first viewing. Tenet is a very complex film and one that happens so fast (despite the runtime!) that most – myself most definitely included – will require a second and even a third viewing to fully appreciate the world which Nolan has created.

If there is one significant negative, it is once again the audio mixing. Ludwig Göransson's score is Zimmer-tastic but often obscures a key piece of dialogue, while certain major plot points become that much harder to grasp because dialogue is distorted or muffled. (This might have been specific to the cinema I saw the film in though, so I’ll hold off on that affecting my final score until I’ve seen it again elsewhere). And by this point, I think we can all agree Nolan has some form of mask fetish going on ...

Tenet would have been a sure-fire hit had the pandemic not come along and changed the world. The fact that Nolan and Warner Brothers are bravely releasing the film wherever they can despite this speaks volumes for their faith in this property. A faith which is most definitely well founded. 

Tenet is, quite simply, a stunning cinematic achievement and one which I cannot wait to sample again.

4.5 Grandfather Clauses for Tenet.

Listen in to a more detailed NON-SPOILER general reaction on The Countdown: Movie and TV Reviews podcast from Sunday Aug 23rd, and then hear the FULL REVIEW as of Saturday Sep 5th.

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