Programme Notes: Tenet


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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

Time waits for no man, except Christopher Nolan.

From its opening moments and for the entirety of its 151 minutes, there is no mistaking Tenet as anything other than the work of director Christopher Nolan. In fact, the thrilling opening sequence in a Russian Opera House feels almost like a parody of his style, finding Nolan emphatically leaning into his established tropes. Images on the grandest scale imaginable; a solitary man on a dangerous mission; camera and bodies always in motion; an intense booming soundtrack; and of course, a ticking clock. 'Time runs out', says the tagline to the film, but I think in Tenet Nolan has finally come up with a way to outrun the clock.

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Time is a subject of constant concern for Christopher Nolan. His films often feature elaborate structures that allow the audience to perceive time at different speeds. Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017) all do this, presenting layers of story in which we perceive time moving faster or slower, relative to the other layers. Memento, Nolan’s breakthrough film from 2000, features an ingenious structure whereby we see events in the main character Leonard’s life unfolding in reverse order, while a parallel thread shows us the character in a forward-flowing narrative. Each thread informs our understanding of the other, until we see the inevitable endpoint that they must reach.

It is Memento’s treatment of time that Nolan seems to be revisiting in Tenet. That may sound strange to say, given the enormous scope and scale of Tenet in comparison to Memento’s tightly-focused drama, but the similarities are there. Tenet is like Memento in that it shows us two timelines moving in opposite directions concurrently; the difference is that in Tenet these timelines are not parallel, they are intertwined. The interlocking hand gesture shown to John David Washington’s Protagonist in his bewildering on-boat briefing early in Tenet is quite an effective attempt to describe what the film goes on to visualise: ‘inverted’ artefacts and people are travelling backwards in time in a temporally forward-moving world.

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But there is another key difference in how Nolan treats the passage of time in Tenet, and it sets the film apart not just from Memento but from all his previous films. It seems to me a key principle (a tenet, if you will) of Nolan’s films is that the arrow of time is unstoppable. As Anne Hathaway’s character Brand says in Interstellar: 'time is relative. It can stretch and it can squeeze… It can’t run backwards'. The things Nolan’s characters have done in the past can’t be changed, and they are painfully aware of this. But if objects and even people can be inverted, and our characters can travel back to a previous moment - as Robert Pattinson’s character Neil’s final speech to the Protagonist makes clear - then Nolan has beaten time at its own game. And it pushes him into new territory with his characters, and brings him to a uniquely hopeful place.

Adam Nayman wrote in Reverse Shot that 'if [Nolan] can be said to have a signature image, it’s of a tortured protagonist in the throes of devastating realization.'[1] This is true of Dom Cobb in Inception, Bruce Wayne in the Dark Knight films, all of the main characters in The Prestige (2006) and Leonard in Memento; they all face the truth of what they have done, and choose to live with it in different ways – but they know it can’t be changed.

But the Protagonist of Tenet is not tortured with self-knowledge; he is all about forward-moving action, and appears to have no emotional baggage – entirely unique for a Nolan lead character. John David Washington has an enjoyably cocky, gung-ho air to his performance; he’s saving the world because he knows he can, not because he needs to make up for any early-life trauma. Rather, in this film the burden of guilt and self-awareness is exclusively on Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who questions herself for having contemplated giving up her son to his tyrannical father. But thanks to inversion technology, she can do something about it; the past can be changed. Kat ultimately acts to ensure that what she fears can never happen. Debicki is the much-needed emotional grounding in this film, and proves again (as in The Great Gatsby and Widows) that she can do a lot with a little.

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As I thought about Tenet in the days after watching it, something bugged me. I couldn’t put my finger on why this film felt particularly different to everything else Nolan has done. And then it hit me; it’s his first film with an unqualified happy ending. Sator’s plan is conclusively foiled, Kat and Max are safe, and our hero, like Neo in The Matrix (a character who the Protagonist shares more than a few similarities with) becomes master of the universe, able to appear exactly where he needs to in time to save them all over again. And the one ‘good’ character who has to pay for victory with his life – Neil – turns out by a quirk of inversion to be reborn in a continual loop; we discover at the end that he is Max, Kat’s beloved son, and he can look forward to reliving a 'beautiful friendship' with the Protagonist, even as he runs back into the fray to face certain death.

I will leave it to others to determine whether this happy ending is more or less satisfying than some of the more ambiguous conclusions Nolan has left us with in the past. But what I find most fascinating is that for a film which to all intents and purposes looks, sounds and feels like Nolan working in his comfort zones, if you dig a bit deeper Tenet actually finds him trying to do something different.

Paul Gallagher
GFT Programme Manager

If you have watched Tenet and want to share your thoughts on the film, we would love to hear from you. Tweet @glasgowfilm or email feedback@glasgowfilm.org and tell us what you thought.


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