FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE YET TO SEE SWAN SONG, THIS IS A NON-SPOILER REVIEW.
Swan Song is Oscar-winning Benjamin Cleary’s feature directorial debut after his 2015 win for the astonishingly profound short film Stutterer. He has an eye for crisp, clean visuals that soak over you, and he is quite obviously, a man full of poignant ideas that deserve the silver screen treatment. And while I think Swan Song is a nice little film with a knockout duo performance from Mahershala Ali, I found that it didn’t have all that much to say by the end.
WHAT IS THE FILM ALL ABOUT?
The movie follows Cameron (Ali), an artist who loves Poppy (Naomie Harris). However, he has recently been suffering from horrible seizures and finds out from his doctor that these frequent seizures will take his life one day soon. Poppy tells Cameron that she is pregnant, and Cameron goes into a mental tailspin without knowing his diagnosis. Then, he finds Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close), who has created a state-of-the-art new way to keep life going, even if you die: cloning. So, Cameron must decide if he keeps this all a secret and has his clone take his place as he continues to die; or tell his wife and let her whole world fall apart.
DOES SWAN SONG EXPLORE ITS THEMES IN A SATISFYING WAY?
Even though we’ve seen many films about the cloning process, I find this whole morality idea interesting in Swan Song. Is it wrong to keep this secret from his family? Or is he doing the right thing by shielding her from unbearable grief? Can this clone, with all of Cameron’s memories, take the place of his actual self? There are a lot of heavy, worthwhile ideas here that all could have led to some fascinating topics of discussion. The official plot of the film does say that it is an “exploration of love, loss, and sacrifice.” Unfortunately, I never felt that there was much exploration of these topics… they were presented but never had time to grow and flourish into something tangible.
There are a couple of things that I do love about Swan Song, though. First is Benjamin Cleary’s world-building. So many times in movies that take place in a not-too-distant future, filmmakers feel like they have to overstuff their picture with “science-fiction”-y things to get the point across that it’s not modern-day. While Swan Song has a few of these touches (like a robot that serves people on a train, a state-of-the-art car, etc.), it’s all done in a not-too-over-the-top, minimalist way that works in the movie’s favor. There’s never a moment you don’t believe the world depicted in the film isn’t too far off from where we are now.
HOW ARE MAHERSHALA ALI’S DUEL ROLES IN THE FILM?
Another reason to give Swan Song a shot is to see one of the finest actors working today, giving not one but two fantastic performances. Mahershala Ali’s one-on-one scenes with his clone are by far the best in the film. This is when we really start delving into these heady topics, but one could only wish that we got to spend more time with the two interacting with each other. Ali’s chemistry with Naomie Harris is also electrifying. When the two hold on to each other, it’s as if for dear life… and you can feel their love for one another radiating off of the screen. Although we get some wonderful flashbacks of when the couple first met, unfortunately, I never felt like I got to know Poppy (Harris) as much as I would have liked. These two performances are so strong that it makes me wonder if the script and the film as a whole were stronger… That these two might very well be in the Oscar conversation.
DOES IT ALL COME TOGETHER IN THE END?
The ending of Swan Song is melancholy and introspective, in quite a moving way. But, when the credits rolled, I never felt like it all added up to something completely satisfying. It has fractured pieces of brilliance and beauty, but if you try to put all of those pieces together, they sadly do not create a whole picture. Writer/Director Benjamin Cleary is undoubtedly a talent to look out for, and maybe if he had gone the limited series route with this premise, he really could have explored in detail all of what he was trying to convey. But, as it is now, Swan Song is only worth watching for Ali… and not much else.
Swan Song streams on Apple TV+ on December 17th, 2021.
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