In Cloud Atlas, the ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer (out tomorrow), six interlocking but initially unrelated stories are told, decades or even centuries apart, and to further the film’s everything-is-connected theme, the filmmakers had most of their cast take roles — large and small — in each of the stories. Some do it more successfully than others (Hugo Weaving is as versatile as ever, but Tom Hanks’ Cockney gangster is, erm, a bit of a stretch), but it’s an endurance test that actors love to take, the kind of challenge that makes a thesp’s mouth water. Cloud Atlas marks one of the few occasions that multi-role performances (and by that we mean more than two) have been taken on in service of a serious film, however; it’s usually, but not always, a gimmick for character-based comedians. At any rate, we’ve assembled a few of our very favorite performances by actors who decided to flex their chameleon muscles; check them out after the jump.
ACTOR: Alec Guinness
FILM: Kind Hearts and Coronets
ROLES: The Duke / The Banker / The Parson / The General / The Admiral / Young Ascoyne / Young Henry / Lady Agatha
For most under-40s, Guiness will now and forever be Obi-Wan Kenobi (though he dismissed Star Wars as “fairy tale rubbish” and was notoriously hostile towards fans of the series). But his primary previous claim to fame was as the go-to leading man for the Ealing Studios, where he starred in five of their classic comedies. His most impressive work for them is found in Kind Hearts, in which he plays eight members of one family, men and women, young and old. He pulls it off, as Roger Ebert notes, “by doing relatively subtle things with makeup, posture, and behavior. Because he was nobody he could be anybody, and here he creates characters who are pompous, silly, inconsequential, or even actually nice.” Guinness is not only astonishingly versatile — he’s also funny, and sometimes warm, and always brilliant.