Claudia Llosa takes us on an ethereal, sleepy, at times inexplicable, sub-arctic journey into the mystical world of healing in her English language directorial debut, Aloft.
Peruvian director Llosa is best known for her film The Milk of Sorrow, which garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film back in 2009. She has made a few smaller films since then, but Aloft, with its glittering cast (as glittering as grim indies get) is clearly her attempt to break back into the international cinema scene. Jennifer Connelly stars as Nana, the young mother to two boys in a remote part of Manitoba. The youngest, Gully, is terminally ill, and she neglects the eldest, Ivan, while desperately seeking a cure for Gully’s illness. This desperation leads her into the orbit of The Architect, played by William Shimell- the famed baritone whose successful turn in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy seems to have quenched his thirst for film work. The Architect is a healer, but he quickly recognizes that young Nana possesses the same gift of healing that he does. She is bewildered by her skills, and struggles in attempting to use them to cure her son. Cut to present day, in which a grown-up Ivan, played by Cillian Murphy, is visited by a young journalist named Jannia, played by Mélanie Laurent. It becomes evident that Nana has since become a famed artist and healer in her own right, and abandoned Ivan as a boy. Ivan is fiercely bitter, but agrees to travel with Jannia to confront Nana face-to-face. They travel far north into Nunavut to meet with her, and their own secrets are revealed along the way.
The interwoven stories of Nana and her children, on paper, should be incredibly interesting, but the film is not without flaws. Set against the bleak, stark backdrop of the Arctic, the characters have nothing to rely upon but themselves, and they expose themselves in interesting ways. The best performance is undoubtedly from Connelly. She is at her best when playing characters slightly removed from their circumstances, and in this film, she appears otherworldly at times, and deserving of audience sympathy. Laurent evokes similar feelings from her turn as Jannia. Murphy is less successful. His character is played too angry and bitter to elicit sympathy, which, unfortunately, is part of the crux of the film. Murphy is generally a strong actor, and I sought more depth and dimension from his performance, but didn’t find much besides the obvious and the superficial. Both the child Ivan and the adult Ivan are loathsome characters, and the audience’s lack of empathy for either of them is, I feel, a great failure of Llosa’s, since her story comes tumbling down.
The problem with the story is that it’s badly-paced, plodding along like Ivan and Jannia trudging their way across the frozen tundra. The film is punctuated by irrelevant plot points, pointless scenes and unnecessary characters. In the end, when you take stock of what you’ve learned about the characters, it doesn’t amount to much. Generally, that’s okay. Llosa keeps her cards close to her chest, and that’s alright, but I needed a little more than she was willing to give. The plot was just opaque enough to be on the annoying side rather than the intriguing. It doesn’t help that the film is utterly humourless, and doesn’t crack its icy façade for one minute.
Fans of Connelly might enjoy her performance, and if you’re a particular fan of Llosa’s, you might like to see it. Beyond that, I’m not sure who the audience would be. If you’re looking for moody dramas set in Canada, I’d encourage you to the brilliant works of Atom Egoyan, in particular The Sweet Hereafter. Another film I was reminded of is the recent The Valley Below by Kyle Thomas, which has a similar feeling of being set at the edge of the world. Connelly and Murphy have done a dozen better films, and even Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow is far superior in comparison to this. As for seeing Aloft, I’d say take flight.