Swan Song Review: Mahershala Ali delivers a knockout performance in an emotionally vulnerable set-up
Mahershala Ali taps into the vulnerable moral dilemma of his complex character, Cameron Tucker, with elegance in Benjamin Cleary's Swan Song. Read Pinkvilla's review below.
Swan Song Cast: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Awkwafina, Glenn Close
Swan Song Director: Benjamin Cleary
Streaming Platform: Apple TV+
Swan Song Stars: 4/5
What if you had a choice of life after death? What if your loved ones won't ever have to grieve you after losing you? Such existential crisis questions loom heavily across the character crux of our lead protagonist, Cameron Tucker (Mahershala Ali), in Oscar winner Benjamin Cleary's debut feature film directorial, Swan Song. Navigating past uber-sleek technology and the meaning of always loving your family at any cost, even your own, does Swan Song leave you thought provoked much after the ending credits have rolled on? Let's find out!
In Swan Song, we're taken to a distant future setting with self-driving cars and so forth, but also where modern medicine hasn't developed to as extremity as technology has advanced. Cameron is dealing with a life-threatening illness and is at odds to confide with his loving wife Poppy (Naomie Harris), who recently lost her twin brother Andre (Nyasha Hatendi). Instead, he seeks out a biotech firm named Arra Labs under the leadership of Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) as well as Dalton (Adam Beach), who offer him an offer he reluctantly can't refuse; make a carbon copy version of himself, with all his memories intact, and live as him post Cameron's death. The catch here is that Cameron can't reveal his experiment to anyone, not even Poppy or their cute young son (Dax Rey). While initially repulsed with the idea of a doppelganger taking over his life, a seizure brings him right back and in tune with Jack, his clone.
The rest of Swan Song sees Cameron having bursts of moral dilemma, even butting heads with Jack while seeking comfort in Dr. Scott's previous patient, Kate (Awkwafina), who also underwent the procedure. Given how Dr. Scott's Arra Labs provides them with a scenic escape to live out their final days, Cameron's inner turmoil is in direct juxtaposition to his serene setting. We're also given a double-edged point of view with Jack, who feels like a newborn baby excited about the prospect of his new life. Even though Cameron and Jack are literally the same people, their life experience craft-fully distinguishes them and for this, Mahershala Ali deserves all the props.
Ali delivers a knockout performance in Swan Song with earnest vulnerability, worthy of his recent Golden Globe nomination, where he never gives you a choice to not feel remorseful towards him, even though there is the obvious betrayal of Poppy's trust by not confiding in her. Mahershala has tactfully managed to play both these complicated characters, with minimal physical differences owing to Cameron's decaying health, with complex ease and at no point are you able to not differentiate between his twin roles. This is especially seen when Cameron has a change of heart and immediately wants to seek the comfort of his family and confronts Jack over the same. On the other hand, Naomie is a fiery counterpart as the calm to Cameron's storm. This is particularly witnessed in the lighter sequences like the couple's adorable meet-cute in a train over a misjudgement with a chocolate candy bar.
As for Awkwafina and Glenn Close, while the former manages to bring out appropriate laughs to lighten up Cameron's wounded grief, Glenn gracefully adds layers to Dr. Scott between stern and maternal to Cameron. An ensemble of trustworthy performers makes Benjamin's job really easy as he's also the writer of Swan Song and from the get-go, you understand how Cleary's own dealing with permanent losses has influenced the screenplay, exponentially.
There is the trudging in between, where moments of solace are overlapped with one too many meaningful looks and an unbelievable picture-perfect family outlook despite the minor crumbs like Poppy shutting herself out from her family to grieve her close sibling's death which is an underdeveloped trope, but this goes to how Swan Song is very much an individualistic story of Cameron's life with important people surrounding him adding an in-depth analysis to his soul. Maybe, Poppy's handling of grief may have been a key deciding factor as to why Cameron indulges in such a drastic step?
In contrast to the darker narrative, there's a sleek edge to Cameron's surroundings in Swan Song; whether it be his and Poppy's woody-toned comfortable family home or the ultra-lustrous lab, especially the numb/intrusive colour scheme. We have cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and production designer Annie Beauchamp to thank for their genius collaboration. In under 112 minutes, editor Nathan Nugent intricately weaves Cameron's conflicted mindset as we're oscillated between his present and conscious unforgettable memories, which is perfectly balanced by Annie Beauchamp's moody music, almost like we're visually showcased the inside of Cameron's composite mind.
At the end of the day, Swan Song feels less like fiction and more like a distant future reality and to that, I would say, you can't help but be engulfed by thought-provoking thoughts; How would you envision your "Swan Song" to be, if given the right to write your end?!