Although she has been an industry mainstay for more than thirty years now, it is not since the early 2000s that Jennifer Connelly could reasonably be considered a major movie star. Whether by choice or otherwise, she has stayed away from big-budget, mainstream fare (excluding last year’s Noah) in order to do smaller, more intimate projects. And Aloft is a very small, intimate movie, centering on only a handful of characters and the and demons that bind them together. Directed by Claudia Llosa, Aloft stars Connelly alongside Cillian Murphy, Melanie Laurent, and Oona Chaplin.
The story of Aloft is told through two parallel narratives in the ice and snow of the far-north: one of Nana (Connelly), set twenty years in the past, and the other of Ivan (Murphy), set in the present. Ivan is the long estranged son of Nana, not having seen her since she left him with his grandfather as a child. Nana’s storyline finds her working part-time, struggling to take care of her sons Gully and Ivan. Gully is terminally ill, and the answers that a series of doctors had given Nana have ranged from noncommittal to grim.
The film opens with a desperate attempt by Nana to cure her child, taking him to an isolated spot in an icy forest where a man known as “the Architect” constructed a structure out of twigs, meant to heal the infirm. An unfortunate series of events involving Ivan’s hawk (he raises and trains the birds) results in a tragedy, not for Gully, but for Ivan. As the ramifications of this event spin out, driving a wedge between Ivan and Nana, Ivan retreats inward and, spurred on by the Architect, Nana begins to toy with the idea of becoming a healer herself. Devoid of humor, Nana’s story has a sense of foreboding that implies hoping for anything other than a tragedy is foolishly optimistic.
In the present day, Ivan is a celebrated breeder of hawks and falcons, with a wife (Chaplin) and child of his own. He loves his family, but the family-man label clearly makes him somewhat uncomfortable. Jannia (Laurent), a journalist, interviews Ivan with the thinly veiled hope he’ll lead her to Nana, now a famous healer. Ivan initially refuses, but Jannia eventually prevails. The pair sets out to find Nana, and a bond begins to form as they traverse the unforgiving landscape. There is a sequence of scenes in which they cross a frozen lake, first by bus and then on foot, that give a true sense of the isolation of the environment, in spite of the vastness. Ivan begins to open himself to the idea of seeing the mother he had written off so long ago as a confrontation between the mother and son becomes inevitable.
Nana as a character is a bit of a cypher, only partially defined by two pre-eminent qualities: affection for her children, and a certain severity when it comes to getting what she wants or thinks she needs. The result is a character with clear aims, but little personality for the audience to empathically identify with. Her brief appearances as an older woman in the present day indicate a softening of personality somewhat, but she is not onscreen long enough for changes to become apparent. Despite this, Connelly gives a superb performance, and even manages to flesh out the character somewhat beyond the tight confines of the script.
Cillian Murphy is equally good as Ivan, though the material he is given to work with is even less involved than what Connelly is afforded. Murphy plays Ivan as a man who already has all he thinks he wants, even if that doesn’t actually make him happy. Whereas Nana acts out of desperation and is active in changing her fate, Ivan is acting out of resignation (How can he logically deny himself a chance to see his mother, maybe for the last time?) and is much more passive. The characters do, however, share a similar intensity that signals their familial relationship.
Melanie Laurent is also solid in her role as Jannia, but serves primarily as a plot device to spur Ivan on to visit his mother and as a sounding board for Ivan to reveal some of his many issues with his mother. Murphy and Laurent have good chemistry, but Llosa wisely avoids throwing a romantic complication into the mix. Laurent’s character does ultimately serve as an integral part in the final scenes, but this is very much Ivan and Nana’s story, and Jannia is just along for the ride.
Aloft is the kind of film that builds up to one definitive climax, a confrontation destined to change the participants’ lives forever with a mix of tears, catharsis, and closure. The build up to Nana and Ivan’s reunion runs throughout the entire film, from the moment it becomes clear that Ivan was abandoned. The actual scene is handled very well, with Murphy and Connelly bringing out some genuine emotion, but the film does nothing with this moment. Nana and Ivan are each onscreen for a few more minutes, but neither is in a position to reveal anything about their emotional state. Much of the film labors in subtext, but the ending is not just up for interpretation, it is vague to the point of nothingness.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Claudia Llosa certainly comes highly recommended; her previous effort, The Milk of Others, was nominated for the Academy Award for best Foreign Language Film. Aloft is undeniably a beautiful film, but it is nonetheless something of a misfire for her. The central premise is solid, if a bit ordinary, as family drama is well that will never run dry for artistic expression. The central problem with Aloft is that its strong desire to leave everything open for interpretation results in a film with very little actual resolution. Devoted fans of Jennifer Connelly and Cillian Murphy may leave pleased with the acting efforts, but Aloft is unable to rise to their level.