Review: ‘Swan Song’ with Mahershala Ali plays hauntingly melancholy melody


Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in “Swan Song”, world premiere on Apple TV+ on December 17, 2021

Photo: AppleTV+

You know, writer/director Benjamin Cleary’s elegant and moving “Swan Song” is science fiction because a dying graphic designer named Cameron, the character played by Mahershala Ali, undergoes a very complex and expensive scientific procedure in a nameless American town and not once did anyone whisper the word “copay”. It’s perhaps the most unrealistic element of a low-key, deliberately paced film that touches on emotional, if not bureaucratic, truths.

“Swan Song” is set in the relatively near future where science – portrayed by Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) – has reached the point where it offers people who have just been diagnosed with a terminal illness a choice: put -you and your loved ones through the torture of watching you die as people in this situation have done for centuries; or, tell no one, and let a clone equipped with all your memories and ways quietly slip into your home while you wait for your days to be taken care of in luxurious seclusion in a sprawling mansion deep in the forest . The clone is equipped with contact lenses that double as cameras so you can always watch your family on a big screen from the comfort of your deathbed. You can die in peace while your family remains oblivious and happy. Win-win for everyone, right?

Well, not quite. And it is in these spaces of doubt that Cleary’s first feature deftly advances. At first, Cameron is all about the secret procedural as he can’t stand impregnating his wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), and their young son, Cory (a precocious Dax Rey), through the agony of deal with his death. She is barely recovering from the accidental death of her twin brother, Andre (Nyasha Hatendi).

But as the big day draws near and Cameron meets Kate (Awkwafina), a woman further down the road from death whose clone has already taken control of her life, and interacts with her clone – whose memories of her own creation and his meeting with Cameron will be wiped out once he actually takes Cameron’s place – he begins to wonder if his act is an act of charity or cowardice.

Beautifully shot in various Vancouver locations, the relatively low-budget “Swan Song” doesn’t rely on a burst of special effects. “Swan Song” is more of an in-house film whose downcast vibe is enhanced by Jay Wadley’s haunting minimalist score as well as the use of Frank Ocean’s cover of “Moon River” and Wooden Elephant takes on “Everything in Its Right Place” and ” Idiot.

But it’s Ali’s understated performance, as Cameron and the clone, that makes “Swan Song” work, despite all the nagging questions raised by the premise (how long could this experience remain a secret before “60 Minutes” doesn’t appear? Who exactly pays for all of this out of a graphic designer’s salary? What happens if the clone gets terminally ill?). And, at nearly two hours, “Swan Song” begins to go from haunting to boring.

‘Swan song’

To classify: For a strong language

Operating time: 112 minutes

Or: Opens December 17 at Studio Movie Grill Pearland; begins streaming December 17 on Apple TV+.

***1/2 (out of 5)

Still, the appeal of the film’s beautiful melancholy is undeniable. Not to mention all this without co-payment.

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  • cary darling

    Cary Darling joined the Houston Chronicle in 2017 where he writes about arts, entertainment and pop culture, with a focus on film and media. A native of Los Angeles and a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, he was a reporter or editor at the Orange County Register, the Miami Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Additionally, he has freelanced for a number of publications, including the Los Angeles Times and the Dallas Morning News.


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