Movies

The Only Good Thing About Tenet Is Kenneth Branagh’s Gloriously Hammy Performance

The Movie Club, Entry 7.

Kenneth Branagh in Tenet.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Warner Bros.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous entry here.

Protagonists,

It’s only fitting that Tenet forces me to reverse the role I normally play in arguments about the Nolan-verse. I’ve always said Christopher Nolan made movies for computer science and math majors, of which I am both. Like tech support, he has the obnoxious desire to overexplain everything, as if he thinks you’re an idiot. As a techie, I don’t find this upsetting—in fact, the only thing I’ve ever found truly offensive about Nolan’s movies is the sound mix; it always feels as though he’s mocking my hearing disability.

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Nolan’s suggestion that his fan base risk their lives to see 150 minutes of dreck in a theater, though, was truly offensive. Hell, if Bette Davis’ ghost appeared before me, cigarette in hand, and demanded that I see All About Eve at a virus-filled multiplex, I would ask her what she was smoking. And that’s my favorite movie of all time. Movie theaters are not the only way to view a film. My love of the movies, especially old ones, came primarily from watching them in my youth on the crappiest black-and-white television Two Guys Department Store sold. Were I to have risked the ’rona to fulfill Nolan’s egocentric temper tantrum of a request, all I would have gotten out of Tenet in a theater is a louder representation of his unintelligible dialogue.

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Tenet doesn’t even look good. Sure, John David Washington’s wardrobe filled this clotheshorse with envy, but the awe I felt at the visual spectacle of Inception is completely missing here. It looks like Nolan put a VHS player’s remote control in his back pocket and ass-dialed the rewind button. Not only did Missy Elliott do a better job putting her thing down, flipping and reversing it, she did it in four minutes and made more sense than this screenplay. And how dare they waste Elizabeth Debicki!

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Boy, did I not like this movie.

But! There was one thing that held my interest, and it’s worth briefly exploring. I am fascinated with Kenneth Branagh’s recent role choices. After first filming himself as Henry V and Hamlet, as Sir Laurence Olivier did, he’s now reenacting the “I’ll Do Anything for Money” scenery-chewing glory Sir Larry employed late in his career. In Tenet, Branagh recycles the awesomely bad Russian accent he had in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and all I could do was stare at him with the jaw-dropping awe I felt for Olivier’s awful performance in Neil Diamond’s remake of The Jazz Singer. Nothing turns me on more than an actor whose massive ego harmonizes in perfect pitch with their shamelessness.

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I wish Branagh had directed his own scenes in Tenet. Nolan is too focused on his technical bullshit to do the kind of self-promotion Branagh the director does in service to Branagh the actor. I mean, just look at the overdramatic way his character is introduced in the deliriously brilliant Dead Again. As Tenet’s villain, Olivier’s heir should be given free rein to bungee jump off the confines of a respectable performance, yet his director is otherwise indisposed and can’t be bothered. Most of the middling reviews of Tenet I read cite Branagh as a weakness, but for me, he was the one interesting thing about the film, a special effect that stood out amid all that rather wretched CGI.

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Two movies I’ve resisted seeing this year due to my own disinterest or taste were I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Promising Young Woman. The latter I had no desire to see for my own mental well-being. I’m not spoiler-averse at all, and once I heard what happens in PYW I knew I made the right choice to avoid it like the plague. But I’ve reviewed movies that have been triggering for my PTSD many, many times. This year, with the numerous people I’ve lost and my stress level off the charts, I really questioned if, from a critic’s perspective, I was doing more with the life God gave me (to quote that great Jessica Tandy line from Nobody’s Fool). Given that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which I love) and two-thirds of Adaptation are the only things I could tolerate from Charlie Kaufman, it was easy to avoid his latest with no guilt on my part. My new rule is: Unless it’s assigned to me, or I’m part of some judging awards body, I am done with trying to see everything just because. And who gets to decide what I’m required to see? I’m always pissed off by what people try to shame me for not liking or not seeing. It’s always something by a white director too, but I’m not gonna get on that soapbox today.

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I will, however, see First Cow. That damn movie has become for Showtime what The Beastmaster was to HBO. I swear to God, every time I turn on my TV and check the guide, First Cow is on. Even my mother knows about it! “Have you seen this First Cow movie?” she asked when I called her. Even worse, she liked it! The die has been cast. If I dislike it, I’ll write about it in the next dispatch. But if I like it, I have agreed to cede two paragraphs to the titular star of the movie to bawl me out.

To close out, I’m curious about the last movie you saw in theaters before everything shut down, and if you liked it. If we’re counting first-run movies, my last one was the awful Bloodshot, which I reviewed. I exited the AMC Bedbug 25 to a nearly empty Times Square, an eerie premonition of what would happen two days later. But if we’re going with the last time I watched any movie in a theater, it was the next day, when I sat three rows from the front of the house at the Quad, where Sonia Braga held court after a screening of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. If Sonia Braga is the last celebrity I ever get to see in person, I will say I’ve lived a full life.

Off to see a film about a cow,

Odie

Read the next entry here.

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