Mahershala Ali Excels as Both Leads in “Swan Song.”
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Playing a role in a movie is a difficult task. Playing two similar roles in the same film is perhaps twice as tricky, but playing two complex, distinct roles in one picture is a feat that many actors would consider unfathomable. Mahershala Ali tackles this feat effortlessly in Benjamin Cleary’s expertly directed Sci-Fi/Drama film “Swan Song”.
Set in a futuristic society, “Swan Song” navigates the life of Cameron Turner (Mahershali Ali) after he learns of his terminal illness. The plot is kicked off when Cameron finds a possible solution to his illness: replacing himself with a technologically created clone, replicated down to every memory, personality trait, and cell. The film tells the story of Cameron as he is faced with an incredibly difficult decision: permanently leave his life behind with a clone replacement or burden his wife and child with grief from his certain death.
Cleary manages to stretch out the story into a full two hours without ever boring the audience. Each character has a unique backstory, allowing the film to focus on developing compelling characters just as much as an enthralling plotline. Both Cameron and Jack, the temporary name for Cameron’s clone, are incredibly complex in both their individual and shared characteristics. Cameron has lived his life doubting himself and walking on eggshells. Now, he faces the most difficult decision of his life, knowing that he could die at any time. Meanwhile, Jack is affected by the decision Cameron must make and knows he has no control over the outcome, and he has resigned himself to this fact. Jack shares the same traits and memories as Cameron, yet there is a small part of him that is hopeful and excited to actually experience life.
Mahershali Ali’s brilliant acting is on full display for the duration of the movie, portraying both Jack and Cameron marvelously. Never once are audiences left confused about who Jack and Cameron are. The costume design certainly helps, but even if the two characters were wearing identical clothing, their demeanors and intonations would still be easily distinguishable. Mahershali Ali is able to carry numerous scenes between just Jack and Cameron effortlessly.
Throughout the entire film, the contrast between the two characters are easily distinguishable and the conflicts between both of them are captivating. His depiction of Cameron is fueled by the stress of his decision and the impact of it, both for himself and for his family. He knows he’s letting a stranger––though not really––into his home, and yet he knows it’s only to benefit his family. Ali’s outstanding acting expresses Cameron’s stress and anger along with Jack’s confused yet complacent mindset. His performance as Cameron alone would easily be worthy of an Oscar, and he is able to carry scenes entirely solo far better than other actors can carry scenes with another person.
The supporting cast shines as well, with an expectedly notable performance from Glenn Close, who plays the role of the doctor. Naomie Harris excels as Cameron’s wife Poppy, whose joyous spirit has taken a hit after dealing with her brother’s death. Awkwafina delivers one of her best performances to date with an incredibly conflicted yet resigned portrayal of another patient at the facility with Cameron.
The direction and cinematography of the movie is remarkable. Breathtaking, yet minimalistic settings help create Cleary and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s futuristic vision for the film while still remaining realistic. The simplistic palette of the mansion is beautifully contrasted with the vibrance of Cameron’s home and the more lively decorative style of Poppy, and the simple costumes are specifically chosen to echo the emotional state of Cameron and Jack.
The best part of the direction from Cleary, however, is what he chooses not to do. At many parts, the movie easily could’ve become a psychological thriller or even horror. However, Cleary chose to focus on the beauty of telling a seemingly simple yet complex story, which pays off beautifully.
Incredible direction from Benjamin Cleary and a tremendous performance by a supporting cast brings “Swan Song” to life. Nevertheless, the movie would not have been anywhere close to what it was without the Oscar-worthy performance of Mahershali Ali, who shines in arguably his best work yet. A beautifully told story, filled with expert direction and phenomenal acting, contributes to the true masterpiece, “Swan Song.”