Film review: Swan Song
Written by Arthur
Deeply human drama Mahershala Ali is superb in this thoughtful, moving, understated sci-fi.
Director: Benjamin Cleary Cast: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Awkwafina Certificate: 15 Where to watch Swan Song online in the UK: Apple TV+
The only thing better than one Mahershala Ali? Two Mahershala Alis. That’s the flawless logic behind Swan Song, Benjamin Cleary’s debut feature, which sees the True Detective and Luke Cage star put in a double shift to moving effect.
He plays Cameron, a graphic designer who is happily married Poppy (Naomi Harris), with whom he has had a son. But their happy existence is threatened by a secret: Cameron has a terminal illness and, after a recent tragedy in Poppy’s family, is afraid to tell her. Instead, he finds himself exploring an alternative option: a cloning system that would enable a healthy copy of him to step in and take his place, without anyone being the wiser.
Mahershala Ali is a fascinating performer to watch in action, and Cleary knows it, often just letting his camera gently linger and observe his facial expressions, whether that’s the still, composed Cameron on his own or the engaged, passionate husband and father interacting with his loved ones. The simple conceit cleverly lets us see both in contrast with each other, as we move between Cameron attempting to process his worsening condition and Cameron contemplating a big lie in conversation with pioneering scientist Dr Scott (Glenn Close). At the same time, we’re introduced to Jack (also Ali), his identical copy, who has to meet Cameron to verify the duplication of his personality as well as his biological make-up.
Close’s performance is just every so slightly off, which means we spend the whole film awaiting with dread a dark, Black Mirror-style twist. But Cleary’s script is more thoughtful than that, and rather than go for shocking horror beats, it wallows gently in the philosophy of it all. Is Cameron contemplating a horrific deceit, or is it a kindness to his family? Is Cameron feeling threatened by Jack proof that the procedure has worked? And what does any of this say about what makes him him – and, by extension, each of us ourselves?
Naomi Harris is slightly underused as Poppy, although a cute set of flashbacks let us see how they met, and Awkwafina does a lot with a little in a small part as another patient of Dr Scott, but this is Ali’s show through and through. The production backs up his understated presence with a similarly natural integration of technology into the intimate storytelling – augmented reality video games with his son are at once tangible, real moments and virtual fabrications – but strip all that away and Ali’s reaction to himself is absorbing enough to contemplate, as we sit back and watch him simultaneously be passive and active, filling up the screen even as he fades away into irrelevance. A pondering, beautifully human fable.