Cloning oneself has been a done-to-death plot device Hollywood has availed till there is not a scrap of DNA left to salvage. Finding out you’re terminally ill and must plan for your death is another overwrought storyline that has long been mummified. Merge these two and I could only imagine the dull and predictable turns such a film would take.
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Writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song dispels that notion very quickly. The film follows a talented artist Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) who finds out he will die soon and decides to spare his family the pain and grief, turning to a company to clone himself. The caveat? He is not allowed to reveal to any of his loved ones that the clone exists at all. Rather than a mess of science-fiction riddled with bullets and punches, the story is elevated by heart and soul.
I really did not think I needed a film like Swan Song in my life but Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris did one heck of a job to convince me, as they play husband Cameron and wife Poppy respectively.
They meet on a train, sharing a tiny bar of chocolate, stealing glances at one another surreptitiously, as though having a secret conversation. Now layer that with the raw magnetism of these two beautiful actors and you have yourself one of the most riveting meet-cutes I have seen in recent years. We later see them develop a relationship and grow their family, and experience a loss.
We can see how trusting Harris and Ali are of one another as scene partners, wrapping themselves in a bubble so effectively that watching these moments feels almost intrusive. I felt like the happiest third wheel ever. That said, it makes Cameron’s situation even more awful, that he would go against such intimacy and have his legacy be a lie.
As Cameron takes on the controversial cloning process, he must really battle with himself, that is, his clone, Jack. We see an actor’s true prowess when they are not just a scene-stealer but the scene-provider single-handedly, and Ali in his two forms deliver as promised. As Cameron argues with Jack over sovereignty of choices to be made, the scenes hit hard.
Heading the cloning institute is the acerbic Dr Scott (Glenn Close) draped in white lines as she glides serenely through her minimalist clinic, speaking of DNA as though she is discussing the weather. Close does not disappoint; only she can be the picture of serenity while embodying something so questionable.
Cameron finds himself a confidant in Kate (Awkwafina), a clone. While Awkwafina and Ali’s scenes are peppered in laughter, there is an ignored foreboding truth that lies in their interactions. Kate’s physical form represents the life Cameron would be surrendering his family to, while her absolutely lovable personality gives him some hope. It’s a tough dichotomy and Awkwafina brings a great performance in droves.
Composer Jay Wadley lives up to the name of the film, with a soundtrack and score that wraps the narrative up with a melody that haunts and comforts using sounds that feel both familiar and unusual.
To audiences, it may seem that Cleary has wanted to make this movie his whole life; careful intention coupled with creative liberation makes each frame matter. Even across the two-hour-plus project, Cleary makes the most of the time. He does the same with the talents of Ali, Harris, Awkwafina and Close.
Swan Song is not in a world of flying cars or robot assistants; the surroundings feel all too real in spaces surrounded by nature and buildings that have an after-life feel, perhaps hinting that the choice of cloning is not a far-off possibility.
There is a eulogic peacefulness about Swan Song that avoids all hazards of an existential crisis. No, its intention is not to scare us or warn us. Instead, the film turns the bargaining stage of grief into something more beguiling and poetic.
Swan Song is streaming on Apple TV+.