Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant
Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Written by David Mitchell, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Produced by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Grant Hill, Stefan Arndt
excellent = 4 stars; good = 3 stars;
fair = 2 stars, poor = 1 star
Cloud Atlas is a cinematic puzzle, with six distinct but cleverly interwoven narratives set in past, present, and future eras. The actors play multiple roles across gender and racial lines in these stories, which seem to highlight humanity's eternal struggle to transcend discord, selfishness, and ignorance. But there are more mundane elements, like the minor, fairly banal nurse character Noakes, a battle-axe at a fake nursing home that actually serves to confine elderly people whose relatives have tired of them. Nurse Noakes resembles Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in her desire to control and torment those under her "care." But Noakes is less subtle and more menacing than Ratched. As played by Hugo Weaving -- acting and dressing in a traditionally female way -- Noakes has no virtues, and she quickly resorts to violence against anyone who gets in her way. Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, adapting the novel by David Mitchell, have made an absorbing film full of ambition and invention. Yet the Noakes character is little more than a cliché. Based on Ratched and her repressed sexuality, Noakes is even worse, in part because the film seems to link her malevolence to her gender ambiguity.
In a plotline that is set more or less in the present day, an older, somewhat hapless English book editor named Timothy Cavendish is in trouble. One of his books has become a bestseller after the thuggish author threw a book critic off a roof. That sounds like it would be a good thing, financially speaking, but now the author's angry thug associates demand 60,000 pounds that they figure are due them because of the book's success. That is money Timothy does not have. Desperate, he seeks the help of his wealthy brother Denny. His brother promises to help raise the money, but it will take time. In the meantime, Denny has the perfect place for Timothy to hide.
Timothy travels to the countryside and arrives at Aurora House, which he thinks is a hotel where his brother has arranged a discreet stay for him. Timothy signs a form at the front desk and goes to bed. But the next morning, he wakes to find a strange woman in his room. The woman says she will give Timothy's keys to "Ms. Judd" for "safekeeping." Shocked, and not much of a diplomat, Timothy calls her a "pilfering cow." She responds: "Because you're new, I shall not make you eat soap powder . . . this time. But be warned, I don't stand for offensive language in Aurora House, not from anyone. I never make idle threats, Mr. Cavendish. Never." He says he would like to see her try to make him eat soap. She approaches, bends down and strikes him hard in the mouth. She says, "A disappointing start." Timothy wonders if this is "some sort of kinky S&M hotel." The woman responds: "I am Nurse Noakes. You do not wish to cross me."
Timothy goes to the front desk and complains to the woman there -- Ms. Judd -- that a "demented bitch" named Noakes is "impersonating a chambermaid." But Judd informs Timothy that this is his home now, and that what he signed the previous night was not a hotel register but a "custody document" that presumably enables Aurora House to hold him there. She refuses to return his keys. Increasingly agitated, Timothy tries to escape, but a groundskeeper restrains him.
Later, Timothy manages to reach his brother Denny by phone. His brother notes that it's against the Aurora House rules to use the phone. It turns out that Denny has betrayed Timothy, trapping him in the institution as revenge for an affair Timothy once had with Denny's wife. In fact, Denny is Aurora House's principal investor, and he reveals that it's quite lucrative: "You can't believe what people will pay to lock up their parents." Timothy apologizes for the affair, but Denny says there is no need for that, Timothy's exile is enough, "although I do have my fingers crossed for a scenario involving you, Nurse Noakes, and a broom handle." As they hang up, behind Timothy we see Nurse Noakes, who looks menacing. She has seen his illicit phone use!
Timothy and a few other elderly inmates hatch a promising escape plot. At a critical moment, they plan an ambush for Noakes, who, having been told Timothy is dead, comes to check on him. Noakes discovers the ruse, but Timothy manages to lock her in a room, calling her a "cantankerous witch." Outside, the escapees steal a car, with Noakes and other Aurora House workers in angry pursuit. The escapees crash the gate and speed off to a nearby pub, where they begin toasting their freedom a bit prematurely, as fellow patrons watch an England-Scotland soccer match. Noakes and her crew arrive. Noakes: "You are going to be sorry in ways you cannot even imagine." But a quick-thinking escapee tells the apparently Scottish crowd, already upset for having lost the match to England, that the nursing home staff are English oppressors. Noakes icily says, "These people are mine," and a huge bar fight ensues as the Scots fight to protect the elderly escapees. Noakes fights well, but ultimately has a keg bashed over her head. The residents escape for good.
In the end, we see Timothy in a comfortable home, writing up his amazing experiences, looking out at falling snow. He types that he will "beaver away in exile" like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, except that he will not be alone. It seems that he has reunited with his long-lost love Ursula, a woman he lacked the courage to revisit not long before his stay at Aurora House. And in one of the many connections between the film's plotlines, Timothy's memoir is ultimately turned into a movie, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which we see being watched by a very important fugitive couple in a distant, dystopian future plotline. These two young characters are on the run from a murderous authoritarian state in a place called Neo-Seoul.
Nurse Noakes is a brief, glancing portrayal in a long and complex film. In fact, the whole Timothy Cavendish plotline seems like a light-hearted reflection of the more serious ones, which pursue the film's themes about life and love on a much grander scale. Still, Noakes shows that the nursing battle-axe endures as a convenient stereotype, and the debt to Ratched and Cuckoo's Nest is impossible to miss. You can count on the audience recognizing quickly what the creators are after: "Oh yeah, frustrated older nurse who delights in torturing those she is supposedly helping in an involuntary institutional setting, the sympathetic inmate character must escape!" Ms. Judd, whether a nurse or not, is a descendant of Cuckoo's Nest's Nurse Pilbow, who aids and abets the evil nursing regime. And the echo of Timothy's liberation in the future Neo-Seoul story merely confirms, on a far larger and more dramatic scale, that Noakes is a symbol of state repression, just as Ratched was. The problem with the battle-axe image, as always, is that it equates nursing authority with malevolence, as if any senior nurse must be a bitter oppressor. Under this view, the proper role of nurses is to be submissive females.
The gender ambiguity of the Noakes character is a twist that seems to add to the character's problems. The filmmakers and actor Hugo Weaving portray Noakes as a menacing and unattractive female with no virtues. Indeed, Timothy directs a torrent of misogyny at Noakes -- she is a "cow," a "bitch," a "witch." And although Timothy's judgment and character are flawed, he is sympathetic and we are evidently supposed to find these sputtering insults amusing and understandable. On the other hand, we are clearly watching a male actor play Noakes. Casting Weaving here fits with the film's larger scheme in which actors take parts in different ages, at times playing across gender lines, underlining the connection and continuity of all human events. Weaving also plays negative male characters, from a hit man for a nuclear power company pursuing a journalist in the 1970's to a kind of demon who haunts the positive main character in the plotline that is farthest in the future. The film does not make Noakes's gender background or status clear. But there are hints. One is Denny's reference to the broom handle, an allusion to a rape scenario which is, to say the least, more commonly associated with male perpetrators. The film's portrayal of the violent, "demented" senior nurse seems to combine gender ambiguity, mental illness, and cartoonish evil. And that toxic mix reinforces the idea that the nursing battle-axe's aggression is rooted in some kind of sexual fear and repression, as Ratched's appeared to be.
Not all of the cross-gender portrayals in the film are negative. And it seems unlikely that the filmmakers meant to critique sexual fluidity. But the one-dimensional Noakes character does nothing to enhance understanding of that important subject -- or of the nursing profession.
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.