Friday 21 January 2022

On demand: "Swan Song"

Not for the first time, a performer of colour wins the Oscar and then finds themselves in exactly the kind of substandard project that gets an actor forgotten about. (Who do you blame - the industry, the agents or the performer themselves?) Benjamin Cleary's speculative sci-fi drama
Swan Song lands on a promising, doubtless easily pitched premise - dying man (Moonlight and Green Book's Mahershala Ali) has himself cloned so as to provide ongoing comfort to his pregnant wife (Naomie Harris); something like an emo Multiplicity - but then fragments the life out of it until everybody on screen and in the audience forgets why they were originally drawn in this direction. Playing down the sci-fi is one choice: we're in the near-future, so Cleary limits himself to one minor CG effect (like visible voice notes) every now and again in the back or sides of frame. But very little else gets played up in its place. At the clinic where Ali version 1.0 drifts off to sleep under the watchful eye of doctor Glenn Close, there's a lot of emptily evocative architecture and fancy ambient lighting that suggests this Apple TV+ production may actually have been filmed in an Apple store; these scenes are sporadically interrupted, with no great urgency, by fiddly, Malick-like flashbacks that only point up the energy missing from the present-day material. In every event, the human elements appear to have been a distant sixth or seventh on Cleary's list of priorities. Ali, experienced enough to plot his own path through a feature, is broadly fine here, landing somewhere between soulful and understandably mopey. Yet you know something's badly off when Awkwafina turns up as a fellow patient and demonstrates none of her usual brio. (Why cast her if you just wanted nondescript?) A terminal snooze on the whole, with a properly atrocious cover of "Moon River" over the closing credits to further punish anybody who's troubled to stay awake. Come back Andrew Niccol, you did nothing for us to have to forgive in the first place.

Swan Song is now streaming on Apple TV+.

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