By Maddy Raven, Film & TV Editor
Tenet has all of the glamour of a quintessential spy thriller, right down to blonde bombshell Elizabeth Debicki suffering at the hands of her abusive arms-dealer husband, but it also has that classic Nolan twist which pushes the stakes higher than ever before.
However, if you asked me to tell you what the plot is in detail, I’d draw a blank. John David Washington, referred to as “The Protagonist” in the end credits, is recruited to investigate a mysterious phenomenon. He is given a single word “tenet” and sent on his way. ‘Inverted’ objects have been appearing all over the world: there’s a complicated explanation involving an individual object’s entropy and how it’s been reversed, but the gist of it is that weapons are being manufactured in the future, and time’s being messed with. These inverted objects play a large role in the coming war.
If you travelled back in time and killed your grandfather, you would cease to exist. But how would you exist in order to kill him? This is the Grandfather Paradox that Nolan hangs his premise from: if people in the future kill their ancestors, then the war would be over before it ever began.
If you’ve seen Under the Shadow of the Moon (2016), you might be familiar with the concept of protagonists moving backwards through time while the rest of us move forward. Normally, I wouldn’t suggest doing some extra work before you’ve gone to the lecture, but in this case, it helped me.
During his investigation, The Protagonist is joined by Neil (Robert Pattinson), a quietly sarcastic, unspecified intelligence operative, who knows more than he’s letting on, and Kat, a British art authenticator (Elizabeth Debicki) – however, Kat’s most defining characteristic is that she’s married to Kenneth Branagh’s Andrei Stor. He’s connected to the manufacture of these inverted weapons, and he’s Russian, so clearly, he’s evil.
Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you much about the physics of the film, or the finer plot details. This is because the music was so unbearably loud. Lots of details passed me by. Ludwig Göransson, the composer, is clearly very excited to be back in cinemas, as was I, because the music was telegraphed across the film so blaringly that I couldn’t hear anyone speak. Robert Pattinson is regrettably quite soft spoken, so all of the very interesting physics (he has a Masters! I managed to catch that!) was drowned out by ticking noises and thumping bass.
Because this is a Nolan film, I can happily blame the loud sound for my failure to completely understand what was going on, when in reality, it’s probably because our puny minds can’t begin to match up to the kind of story-telling he’s capable of. He’s miles ahead of us. But, when you break it down, this is a film about spies, and time travel, and it’s best that we leave our analysis at that and enjoy it.
Tenet consists of James Bond-esque locations: gentleman’s clubs in London and yachts in Vietnam, so it’s beautiful to look at. John David Washington also had to learn how to execute his stunts backwards, and the sequences in which characters move backwards through time are mesmerising. This is primarily a spy thriller – while there are fight scenes, it’s not gratuitous, though the last ten minutes of the film is a lot of explosions and guns, making it even more difficult to understand what was actually happening.
Elizabeth Debicki is also part of the aesthetic beauty of the film: her statuesque beauty and ability to play battered wife (honed over several films where she plays the same character) would be amazing to watch if I hadn’t seen her against a similar backdrop, doing similar things in both Widows (2018) and The Night Manager (2016). She also plays the wife of another rich villain in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), and the Italian locations could be swapped out for one another. Though, as Kat, she is able to empower herself by playing a major role in the triumph against evil.
Regrettably, despite its hype, Tenet wasn’t as full of surprises as I would hope, but it’s still highly enjoyable. But, when you’re travelling into the past, how can anything surprise you?
Are you as glad as us to be going back to the cinema? Let us know!