Benjamin Cleary’s name has been making waves ever since we got our first glimpse of his talent with the debut of his Academy Award-winning short-film ‘Stutterer’ and in the half decade since, he has cemented his reputation as one of the most talked about promising filmmakers of the 21st century. His directorial debut ‘Swan Song’ delivers on that promise with a beautiful fable of love and loss that will leave you ruminating on past love, time and the nature of our existence.
Starring Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Glenn Close and Awkwafina, Cleary's film asks the complex and difficult question of what we would do, if in the not-to-distant-future we were given the choice of removing the ripples of grief inflicted on those we eventually leave behind.
Cameron Turner (Ali) is dying and quietly coming to terms with his own mortality. As his final days on earth become fleeting moments, his expecting wife (Harris) and child aren’t aware of his diagnosis, and so he makes the conflicted decision of shielding his family from the grief to come and the solution that awaits them in his passing.
That solution comes in the form of Arra Labs, a hospice/cloning facility led by Dr. Scott (Close) that facilitates its clientele by curating a duplicate to replace them after death. Transferring memories, mannerisms and visual identifiers whilst extracting the cause of expiration from the original source, its life’s work is beautifully embodied by the sunset and sunrise that floods its grounds.
If death is the natural order of things, to what extent could your duplicate be authentically you? That question is masterfully examined in a captivating first lead role for two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali that’s two-fold: capturing the five stages of grief through a man in his final days - and his replacement - in an emotional tour-de-force as both versions of one man come to terms with the next stage in his respective lives. It's a heart-thundering performance that displays an empathy - alive and pulsating - for those competing thoughts, struggles and the undying love for his wife and child captured within a fever-like dream.
It’s with thanks to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and Jay Wadley’s symphonic score that Cleary’s subdued Pacific Northwest meets with a believable optimism in its warm hues. That optimistic outlook on our future is further embraced through technology on the verge of popularity and some typical futurist tropes comprising augmented reality, flying cars for hire and robotic trains dispensing chocolate. This is lo-fi science fiction at its most responsible, set in a future fuelled by possibility and understanding.
From the formidable on-screen chemistry between Cameron (Ali), Poppy (Harris) and son Cory (Rey) to the whisper quiet calm of fellow patient Kate (Awkwafina) and the cold consequence and harsh reality of Cameron’s sacrifice told by Dr. Scott (Close) it's clear that this cast of characters are good people weaving through the incredibly sad inevitability of the human experience. Strong in its convictions, the film resists predictable plot twists and external threats preferring to pay homage to humanity’s biggest threat - the fragility of life itself.
Not a love story, the film is rather a story about love and the lengths one would go in the name of love, in honesty and death, or in duplicity and health. Many at my screening struggled to compose themselves as the credits rolled and the theatre lights returned. Tears were shed representing love lost, songs left unsung and the bruising of egos reminded that tomorrow isn’t promised.
This beautifully bittersweet moving tale will leave its audience with the same emotion and many difficult questions to answer about life, death and everything in-between. Would we protect our loved ones from grief given the chance? Will we be remembered once our time reaches its ultimate end? For Benjamin Cleary the answer to that last question is clear, for Swan Song is a modern-day classic that will live long in the memory.
'Swan Song'premieres on Apple TV+ and in select theatres on December 17th.
Sigmund is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of ScreenTimes where he began his Apple TV coverage in 2016. With an unwavering passion for Apple, storytelling and storytellers alike, he writes about Apple TV with a focus on the arts, development, tvOS, home theatre and accessibility. Sigmund also co-host’s Magic Rays of Light, a weekly podcast exploring the world of Apple TV and the many talents bringing our screens to life.