Producers: Mahershala Ali, Rebecca Bourke, Jonathan King, Jacob Perlin, Adam Shulman and Mimi Valdés Director: Benjamin Cleary Screenplay: Benjamin Cleary Cast: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Awkwafina, Glenn Close, Nyasha Hatendi, Adam Beach, Lee Shorten and Dax Rey Distributor: Apple+
There’s nothing at all wrong with a good tearjerker, but one as pretentious and ponderous as Benjamin Cleary’s is another matter. A swan song is by definition a dirge, but it need not be as long and lugubrious as this.
In his first feature, set in what’s portrayed as the near future, Cleary offers a variation on a theme that’s become familiar in recent films—the possibility that science might somehow be able to fill an emotional void in people’s lives. In this case Glenn Close portrays Dr. Scott, a specialist in cloning and artificial intelligence who has perfected a mechanism whereby the terminally ill can elect to be replaced surreptitiously by identical substitutes so that their loved ones won’t have to endure the trauma of loss and grief when he dies.
Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) is a candidate for the procedure, an advertising man who is suffering from an incurable ailment that occasionally leads him to collapse. He’s been able to hide the condition from his lovely wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and darling son Cory (Dax Rey), whom they affectionately refer to as Doc because of his precocity, but that won’t be possible much longer, so he’s been in touch with Dr. Scott. Travelling to a remote modern center in the North Pacific mountains, he confers with her and her two assistants, Dalton (Michael Beach) and Rafa (Lee Shorten), about whether to go ahead with the substitution, which will involve the transfer of his memories and experiences into his double, who will have all his own recollections wiped clean before he takes Cameron’s place. In the end not even the substitute will know he’s not the original.
Cameron is ambivalent about going ahead, but having witnessed Poppy’s extreme grief over the untimely death of her beloved brother André (Nyasha Hatendi) in a motorcycle accent, and after meeting the substitute of one of the two people who have already been replaced—a travel agent named Kate (Awkwafina)—and seeing how well the result has gone for her and her daughter, he agrees to proceed. Before long he is watching as his replacement is imbued with his persona and sent off on a trial run, while he remains at the facility, commiserating with Kate, who is there as well, awaiting the inevitable. Seeing himself replaced by a double causes him intense pain and regret.
Cleary plays this out in understandably mournful tones, but he relies entirely too much on Ali’s soulful, somber manner to keep us interested, and as good an actor as he is, there are simply too many scenes of Cameron gazing sadly toward the camera in what might be slow-motion. (Nathan Nugent’s editing is very deliberately paced.) Realizing that such one-note melancholy isn’t enough, Cleary adds road-bumps along the way to the replacement’s easy installation—an uneasy détente between Cameron and the clone at the facility, a last visit home by Cameron that’s interrupted by a sudden crisis, an unauthorized return that means a strained meeting with his double. He also inserts flashbacks to Cameron’s happy domesticity—the cute meeting with Poppy on a commuter train, his playing games with Cory, his watching his wife as she works on the music she uses to help kids with learning disabilities—to emphasize everything that he is giving up, and his turmoil at imagining that their affection will be transferred to another.
That’s all well and good, but despite Ali’s committed performance, nice support from Harris and Rey, the usual professionalism from Close and a role for Awkwafina that gives her the opportunity to mix sorrow with bursts of her patented sardonic humor, the film remains largely inert. It’s well made, with a striking production design by Annie Beauchamp that takes advantage of some gorgeous locations and elegant cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi, along with a few effects to suggest the technological advancements of the near future, but their emphasis on visual coolness militates against the film’s desire to tug at the heartstrings. Jay Wadley’s atmospheric score provides some counterpoint, but not enough.
“Swan Song” takes an interesting, if hardly original, premise, but expands on it clumsily.