Tenet (4 stars)

Tenet

Christopher Nolan comes to cinemas' rescue with a stupidly exciting if slightly befuddling sci-fi thriller

With the fate of film in his hands, Christopher Nolan has shown he has the big brass balls to thrust his latest into an uncertain cinematic landscape. A macho brainteaser with Nolan's name written all over it, Tenet is the first blockbuster for months – the film that cinemas have reopened in anticipation of – and, although shaky in its communication of the science, it more than makes up for it in ambition and stupendous action.

John David Washington cements his star status following his breakout in BlacKkKlansman playing The Protagonist, an undercover agent for the titular organisation. After proving his worth at the outset, he is gifted the most important of missions, as he attempts to scupper the globe-threatening plot of Kenneth Branagh's arms-dealing Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator. Assisted by Robert Pattinson's dandy-esque (although not in name) Neil and, less willingly, by Sator's frightened wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, seemingly reprising her role from The Night Manager), The Protagonist finds himself operating in a twilight world, where objects and actions can be dangerously inverted and the future poses a threat to the present.

Nolan's ability to turn films into events and to keep things conceptually challenging is long-established and Tenet shows audacity from the off, with a showstopping, opera house-set scene that's both nail-biting and baffling. Although running to two and a half hours, the tension and momentum never let up; Ludwig Göransson's score pulses and pounds like a racing heartbeat, while Hoyte Van Hoytema shoots with fluidity, his steely visuals and the punchy heists keeping the film rooted in a more realistic realm, even as the material gets more and more uncanny.

If he doesn't have the bulk to physically intimidate, Branagh shows a ferocity we've rarely, if ever, seen from him on screen; it's an interesting piece of casting. Washington is a fine focus: committed, kick-ass and ever so slightly imperious, there's no wise-cracking here. Debicki's imperilled wife and mother does feel dated, but the actress plays her with total conviction, adding notes of humanity that we don't get elsewhere, with so many necessary enigmas or fleeting appearances (from Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Martin Donovan and, with a little more screen-time, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a gruff soldier).

The story snakes this way and that but the explanations are delivered as hurriedly as the action, often amidst the deafening excitement, which can make them difficult to process and, whilst some of the inverted action works well, other moments – the use of weapons for example – can be visually unfathomable. Yet Nolan's flair for executing powerful set-pieces remains up there with the very best of them, and one suspects his logic will come into sharper focus with a re-watch or two. Perhaps that's the intention. So, see it twice and help save cinema.

Available to watch in cinemas from Wed 26 Aug.

Tenet

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • UK / US
  • 2h 30min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Christopher Nolan
  • Cast: Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh
  • UK release: 26 August 2020

John David Washington is the new Protagonist in Christopher Nolan's original sci-fi action spectacle 'Tenet.' Armed with only one word - Tenet - and fighting for the survival of the entire world, the Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond…