Tenet ★★★

Christopher Nolan won’t make a bad film. The worst he’ll do is simply make another one. Tenet falls somewhere in between; a sumptuous, globe-trotting mega puzzle which for all its slick, brain bending action and narrative audacity, often teeters on the brink of self parody. Imagine a deathly humourless cross between Memento and Inception and you’re almost there.

John David Washington is ‘The Protagonist’, a somber CIA operative embroiled in top secret international espionage. At the outset he is trying to retrieve a mysterious artefact, but after being apprehended by mercenaries and the operation compromised, he does what any good CIA boy would do; chomps down on a cyanide tablet. 

But it turns out this was all an elaborate loyalty test. Alive and well, The Protagonist is recruited by a clandestine organisation - Tenet - with the purpose of thwarting a Russian madman (Kenneth Branagh) bent on destroying the world with a time manipulation device. Cue lots of brilliantly conceived gimmicks such as ‘backwards bullets’, converging timelines and kinetic stunts run in reverse. 

There is no doubt that this clever stuff; the narrative segments converge in a satisfying manner and a grand design begins to fall carefully into place. But if it all sounds a bit James Bond, that’s because it is. In essence anyway. It’s brilliantly edited, tense and moves at a cracking pace, with a style and growing urgency that skilfully clouds the silliness of the plot. However it’s all slathered in such a heavy, suffocating layer of portentousness that it’s difficult to be completely entertained by it.

The biggest criticism are the intrusive music cues. The pulsating score drones over every bit of dialogue or exposition and renders it almost indecipherable - and for a film where you are supposed to be paying attention, it has a rather distracting (not to mention increasingly amusing) effect. It also detracts from the rise and fall of the plot.

Performances are mostly fine. Washington and Robert Pattinson (as The Protagonist’s handler) are serviceable but cuddly Kenneth Branagh just doesn’t cut it as the world’s most dangerous man; adopting a hammy Russian accent, he comes off like a Roger Moore era Bond villain and wouldn’t be out of place in Moonraker or Octopussy. Best of all is Elizabeth Debicki as Branagh’s vulnerable wife; she is a magnetic, alluring presence and she anchors her scenes with believable humanity that the others sorely lack. 

Of course, every flaw that you perceive is completely intentional on the director’s part isn’t it? Because Christopher Nolan wants it that way. The man is clearly a challenging artist, but his work is not above criticism. Tenet is just another one of his films, but this time that film is enjoyable, infuriating and unintentionally amusing. It trips over its own Nolan-ness. And whilst he always tells the visual aspects of the story masterfully, I do just wish he’d stop getting high on his own supply.