#REVIEW: “SWAN SONG”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Cameron Turner (two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali) is dying. He has a terminal illness and is prone to seizures that he has been hiding from his family. Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close) and her team have the experimental procedure that might make things easier: cloning him, and letting the clone take his place as part of the family without them noticing.
The moral quandary and ethics around whether Cameron should go through with this plan or not make up the bulk of SWAN SONG’s runtime. The Film, the second released this year with that title, is the rare Science-Fiction picture that barely feels like it should be part of the genre. First-time feature Writer/Director Benjamin Cleary has composed a film where everything looks and feels modern, but then adds elements that feel more postmodern by design. Being an Apple film, I had a few chuckles at the demo technology on display as well as the clinical emptiness of some locations. Unlike typical Sci-Fi however, everything here feels real and tangible; almost as if it is previewing what the future will look like, rather than the outlandish neon coloured vistas we so typically see in films of its ilk. That grounded appearance, alongside Composer Jay Wadley’s beautifully stirring score, are what really make SWAN SONG stand out.
Where it falters is in the story itself. We only get fragments of memories between Cameron and his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris), and even less with their son Cory (Dax Rey). They are the most important part of Cameron’s life and fuel his ultimate decision, but we spend more time with Cameron and his clone than we do with the family. The backstory and moments we do get do not feel nearly as fleshed out as they should be, nor some of the little breadcrumbs Cleary leaves behind that go completely unexplored. A momentarily sinister pivot late in the Film comes off bewildering more than anything else because of everything that came before. I appreciate the world Cleary created here and the palpable sense of emotion and grief – but feel he does not allow any of it to fully play out as far as it needs to.
That said, the acting is quite wonderful across the board, even if many cast members are not given much to do. Close, Lee Shortern and Adam Beach are lovely as the team making the clones, as is Rey’s Cory (who gets in a few emotionally eviscerating moments throughout). Harris does well with the material, yet never really has her own agency. The precious few things we do learn about her are never fully explored. Awkwafina puts in some heavy emotional lifting as a fellow ill clone candidate, far removed from her comical persona. All of them pale in comparison to the mighty two-handed performance Ali puts in as Cameron and his clone Jack. He is just as stoic and hardened as we have come to expect, but the humanity he exhibits brings a new depth to his acting persona. He is devastating, he is hilarious, he is everything a two-time Oscar winner should be – and all of this is for only his first (dual) leading role! Perhaps the Film around him could have been improved if it was as strong as he is.
SWAN SONG streams on Apple TV+ starting Friday, December 17, 2021.