Review: ‘Swan Song’
There is a tonal delicacy to Swan Song, which counterbalances its more contentious themes. This futuristic end of life character piece goes some way to addressing both the moral and ethical arguments it brings up. More a film shaped by exquisite emotional silences than bombastic moments of dramatic grandstanding, it gets beneath the skin and stays there.
Oscar-winning short film director Benjamin Cleary, who scooped the award in 2016 for Stutter, makes Swan Song a genuinely subjective experience. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, reunited after Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight, are compelling in their performances, forging an honest connection on screen which allows audiences to emotionally invest from minute one. By manipulating and interlinking the past and present, Cleary is able to map initial meetings, personal tragedies and family triumphs without dwelling on showy visuals.
There is such an undeniable bond between Cameron and Poppy, that when the central conceit of Swan Song kicks in, there is no jarring transition or pregnant pause. Instead, Ali convinces in dual roles imbuing his opposite number with both heartfelt empathy and vitriolic indignation. However, each structural choice is so perfectly balanced, that at no point does he draw attention to that fact. Meanwhile, Harris works hard as the free spirited and musically inclined Poppy, providing an essential emotional foundation that allows awkward questions room to breathe.
Elsewhere, Glenn Close allows shades of maternal concern to color her portrayal of Dr. Scott, whilst barely cloaking the more cutthroat corporate intentions at play. Meanwhile, Awkwafina offers the perfect counterpoint to Cameron’s moral dilemmas through Kate, by lacing their exchanges with pitch-black cynicism and an unflinching pragmatism; an approach which ensures that audiences never get too comfortable.
Set amongst spectacular scenery and swathed in cutting edge contemporary architecture, Swan Song often gives off an Ex Machina vibe by way of Tales from the Loop. There is an innate tranquillity which permeates every frame and stops Swan Song from becoming too morose or dour in demeanor, a feeling which is further enhanced by composer Jay Wadley through his score, who last collaborated most notably with Charlie Kaufman on I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
By employing a deceptively simple piano foundation within an otherwise ornate score, Jay Wadley perfectly captures that sense of tranquil detachment, which Swan Song so eloquently plays on. In a heartbeat, he is also able to influence emotional reactions through the momentary implementation of drums, violins and cellos. Coupled with the contributions of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, familiar to fans of both Black Mass and Spotlight, this intimate family drama soon blossoms into something more divisive.
In raising the moral and ethical questions around terminal illness, writer/director Cleary is opening up an artistic can of worms. Offering no easy answers to an audience, who are conditioned in the main to like their films neatly resolved come the credits. At first glance Swan Song might offer just that, but the ambiguity comes afterwards when it becomes apparent just how grey those areas of uncertainty really are.
It goes deeper than most people would wish to when it comes to their entertainment, by dissecting the definition of an individual. Cleary questions the uniqueness of a person, by suggesting that they can be replicated down to the last molecule. By extension, that calls into question the intangible notion of a soul. Things which some people may find uncomfortable to watch, but nonetheless are an important part of what makes Swan Song worthwhile.
However, beyond the deeper questions this film also works as a simple piece of quality drama, one which is both compelling as a character study, but also possesses considerable depth for those willing to dig. Oscar winner Ali brings an inherent dignity to Cameron in all his incarnations, while Harris provides Poppy with ample shades of grey. That their contributions, alongside those of Close, make this film ultimately uplifting says much for the balancing act Cleary manages to pull off.
As a companion piece to his Oscar-winning short film Stutter, Swan Song also makes perfect sense. In many ways the latter is as much about failing to communicate, as it is about anything else. The tonal tranquility which provides Swan Song with its own innate ambience, is also noticeable in the director’s earlier work. Not only highlighting the recurring themes of disconnection and isolation within both, but providing them with an allegorical angle, one that reflects the impact of a viral threat on the way we live our lives.
This slow burn family drama from writer director Ben Cleary, takes its time tackling some delicate questions. That Swan Song also holds up as a diverting piece of mainstream entertainment, only underlines the importance of Apple and its original content.