“The best times to show true love are when it isn’t easy and it requires
personal sacrifice.” (Unknown)
“Love means that you care for another person’s happiness more than your own – no matter how painful the choices you face might be.”
I begin my review of SWAN SONG with quotations on love as Benjamin Cleary’s film is a sci-fi love story about a man’s ultimate sacrifice – that of turning over his body and soul to a brand new, healthier version of himself. Based on Robert McCammon’s book, the story begins with a flashback on a commuter train where Mahershala Ali’s character of Cameron Turner is sitting across from a very beautiful young woman named Poppy, played by Naomie Harris. There is a chocolate candy bar resting on the table between them, which Cameron thinks is his, and each of them takes turns breaking off a tiny piece at a time. Poppy disembarks at her stop and Cameron discovers his own candy bar and is embarrassed that he was nibbling at hers. Now married to Poppy, the action cuts to the interior of Cameron’s bathroom where he faints – one of many seizures that will eventually claim his life and ultimately sets him on a quest to spare his family from a tragic loss.
Our protagonist has heard about this facility called Arrah House set deep in the woods where patients live out their final days. Administered by Dr. Eve Scott, quietly, but effectively played by Glenn Close, she and her colleagues have devised a method of creating a perfect replicant or clone who will have complete conscious and unconscious memories transferred to its brain from the dying person. His counterpart is named Jack and the only distinguishing difference is Cameron has a small dark spot on one of his palms. The caveat is the wife or family cannot know about the new, healthy version as that would negate the procedure. Cameron is conflicted but knows he cannot tell his wife that he is dying. To help him with his decision to proceed, Dr. Scott introduces him to Kate, nicely characterized by Awkwafina, who is in the final stages of her life. They have long discussions overlooking the water in this wooded bucolic setting. His seizures continue and eventually, Cameron meets Jack and they talk, and through the magic of filmmaking, we see them together discussing “their” lives. His replicant knows everything about Cameron’s life with his wife including her depression for the last year over the motorcycle death of her twin brother Rafa (Lee Shorten). He knows that she is pregnant and that she speaks French and uses music to teach children with learning disabilities. The two men continue to bond, sharing meals together but our dying character is not quite ready to say goodbye to his family and wants to visit them one more time to help him put closure on the inevitable. As he approaches his home, another seizure incapacitates him and he is quickly returned to the center by a waiting driverless car. Dr. Scott thinks he’s ready for the final transfer, but her technician Dalton (Adam Beach) disagrees so they compromise with a two-week trial period. Jack goes to “his” home and there is no suspicion from either his son Cory (Dax Rey) or his wife that he is not Cameron. The only one who doesn’t accept him is their dog “Pig” who barks and runs away. In the meantime, Poppy was unhappy that he was away so much on “business trips” professing how much she loves him and that “I couldn’t live without you.” There is a tearful farewell and back at the clinic, in a symbolic gesture, Cameron gives Jack his wedding ring who will now officially take the dying man’s place with his family.
Of course, there are moral and ethical questions regarding such a procedure, but first-time film director Cleary leaves that judgment up to the audience. He skillfully walks the tight rope of avoiding the slippery slope of melodrama that could have morphed into an overly saccharine family drama. Instead, he presents us with a quintessential love story of sacrificing oneself for the good of the other. Under his direction, he elicited a tour-de-force performance from Mahershala Ali who mined the subtleties of his character while Naomie Harris’ performance as Cameron’s wife is equally well executed. Close’s performance as the good doctor delivers an understated characterization and in an almost soft whisper, reminds the conflicted Cameron, “You are dying.”
Technically, director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi’s camera moves us slowly through the action with Nathan Nugent’s editing sharply focusing the story. Production Designer Annie Beauchamp is responsible for the overall look of the film, Visual Effects supervisor Ajoy Mani provides the fascinating futuristic components, with Jay Wadley’s music underscoring the ongoing action.
Distributor: Apple +
Release Date: Current
Where: In Select Theatres & Apple TV
Genre: Sci-Fi Family Drama
Running Time: 114 Minutes
*The term “Swan Song” originates from an ancient, but disproven legend, that while they are mute during their lifetimes, swans sing beautifully and mournfully just before they die. Actually, they have a variety of vocal sounds and don’t sing before they die. The phrase
is found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Euripides, Cicero, and Shakespeare usually signifying the end of an event or a character.