Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has a couple of obvious Indian elements. Let’s get them out of the way. Dimple Kapadia plays Priya, who deals in weapons and secrets from a Mumbai high-rise. A member of the mysterious organisation that has inspired the film’s palindromic title, Priya is one of many people whom the lead character known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) meets during his quest to find out just what the hell is going on.
While in Mumbai, The Protagonist and his named accomplice Neil (Robert Pattinson) discover an innovative way to beat the traffic. Mumbai is among the many pit stops for the itinerant Protagonist, who hurtles from one picturesque location to the next to figure out the hows and whys of bullets that have been invented in the future and can be “inverted”, or move backwards in time.
The trail leads to the wealthy Russian Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Sator’s toxic relationship with his wife Katherine (Elizabeth Debicki) provides The Protagonist with an entry point, apart from raising the possibility that a movie that demands immense brain-work from its viewers might allow the heart to do its work too.
No such luck: Nolan’s grand gewgaw of a movie, which dips into physics to examine the ramifications of time travel and the ability to tweak the past to earn a better future, is too caught up in plotting mechanics to reveal the pulse that makes the machine tick.
Tenet furthers Nolan’s abiding interest in proving that cinema itself is the greatest time travel machine ever built. Memento, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk have all played with narrative linearity and conventional dramaturgy to demand that we watch very closely and return over and again to make sense of what we have seen.
Nolan’s high-minded approach to genre material has been unfailingly accompanied by thundering visual spectacle. Among the jaw-dropping set-pieces in the 150-minute movie is the opening shoot-out at an opera house, a highway chase with vehicles being driven in reverse, and a climactic gunfest that combines forward and backward movement. In the equivalent of bringing a sword to a knife-fight, Nolan even uses a plane to cause a breach in a low-rise building simply because he can.
Enthralling when on the move – Hoyte van Hoytema’s gliding camerawork is never showy – and powered by Ludwig Goransson’s tense and eerie background score, Tenet falters during the in-between moments. The heavy-handed expository dialogue, also by Nolan, is puzzling in a movie that sets out to prove that cinema, unlike other art forms, can take risks and explore complex ideas without having to sit us down and spell everything out for us.
The gargantuan co-ordination of people and things and locations across 150 minutes inspires much-needed momentum, but the human aspects of these movements are barely considered. Saving humanity was always going to be exhausting, but when did it get so ponderous?
Among the characters who retain warmth amidst the coldness is The Protagonist. John David Washington displays admirable resolve and energy as he careens from one fistfight to the next. Elizabeth Debicki brings brittleness and fragility to a poorly shaded character, while Robert Pattinson is rakishly charming when permitted. Dimple Kapadia makes the most of her international debut to ensure that Priya is enigmatic as well as formidable.