Swan Song (2021) poster

Swan Song (2021)


USA. 2021.


Director/Screenplay – Benjamin Cleary, Producers – Mahershala Ali, Rebecca Bourke, Jonathan King, Jacob Perlin, Adam Shulman & Mimi Valdes, Photography – Masanobu Takayanagi, Music – Jay Wadley, Visual Effects – Basilic Fly, Company 3 (Supervisor – Rickey Verma), Image Engine (Supervisor – Thomas Schlesny), Screen Scene & Territory, Special Effects Supervisor – Tony Lazarowich, Production Design – Annie Beauchamp. Production Company – Know Wonder/Anonymous Content/By Ghost/Concordia Studio.


Mahershala Ali (Cameron Turner/Jack), Naomie Harris (Poppy Turner), Glenn Close (Dr Jo Scott), Awkwafina (Kate/Kate Duplicate), Nyasha Hatendi (Andre Turner), Adam Beach (Dalton)


Sometime in the future. Cameron Turner has learned that he is dying but has kept this from his wife Poppy. He has gone to the medical research institute run by Dr Jo Scott. The institute offers to provide an identical clone of Cameron. This will have the medical problems removed and his memories transplanted into the clone body with all memory of the operation removed so that it can go in and take his place with nobody noticing. As Cameron agrees to go through with the procedure and falls increasingly ill, he begins to have second thoughts.

Swan Song was pushed as a personal project by Mahershala Ali. Ali has been a star of rise in recent years ever since he found success in Moonlight (2016) and has proven himself to be an excellent actor. For a project to gain such a high-profile name and supporting cast attached, it is a surprise that Irish director/writer Benjamin Cleary had only previously made a handful of short films, although his 12-minute long Stutterer (2016) did win an Academy Award as Best Short Film, Live Action. Swan Song should not be confused with the other film the same title that came out the same year, the non-genre Swan Song (2021) starring Udo Kier as an aging hairdresser.

We have had a number of films about cloning since The Clones (1973). Most of these have centred around themes of someone finding their life taken over by an identical duplicate, while in more recent years the idea of clone soldiers has taken off. Amid this, there have been a number of clever and inventive treatments including the likes of The Boys from Brazil (1978), Never Let Me Go (2010), Womb (2010), LX 2048 (2020) and the tv series Orphan Black (2013-7). For a more detailed listing of these see Films About Cloning.

Swan Song is similar to a cloning film like The Clones or The 6th Day (2000), which become identity puzzles as one person finds their life being taken over by a duplicate. This reverses the sympathy and point-of-view and has the donor cultivating a clone to step in as his replacement. The film then becomes a drama about the donor watching and reacting to the clone’s assumption of their life. Not an identity theft story so much as a story about someone grooming a replacement.

Mahershala Ali and clone in Swan Song (2021)
Mahershala Ali and his clone. (The real Mahershala is on the right, the clone on the left)

That said, Swan Song requires an extremely improbable set-up to get to its main premise. It involves a secret institute that creates clones of people – you would think that such an institute would advertise its services rather than operate in secrecy. Moreover, the economics of the operation seem to work in a vacuum – in other words, who pays for the cloning operation? It surely cannot be one where the doctors operate out of their goodness of their heart so if Mahershala is paying for a highly experimental procedure out of his own pocket, wouldn’t his wife notice the absence of a large amount of cash? For that matter, would he not wonder where all the money went after all memory of the operation and being ill is wiped from the clone’s mind?

You also have to ask some questions about the knowledge wipe that is conducted. Does this also include the knowledge that Mahershala was terminally ill that he kept from his family for who knows how long? Would the wipe also include everything else that occurred around these events like him attending doctor’s appointments, sitting in the midst of family meals and contemplating very mortal thoughts? This would surely leave large gaps in his memory. Even the improbable idea that someone would prefer to spend their dying moments alone with no family around and have someone else take their place seems a piece of writing detached from normal human emotions.

Swan Song had a lot going for it. There is a powerhouse cast – Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Academy Award-winner Glenn Close and well okay I am not completely sold on the merits of Awkwafina. The film also comes with a nice subtle, modernist production design scheme, while clearly announcing that it is taking place sometime in the Future. I particularly liked the designs for the clinic – all curved hallways with neutral lighting schemes, open-space interiors and perfectly landscaped gardens and wooded areas on the outside.

Yet for all the promise and grand conceptual reach it holds, Swan Song doesn’t work. The drama in the film is very soft focus. It is a certain slow, weepy tone that you get in a lot of indie films that seems to be intended to indicate emotive sincerity but here all of this translates as just slow-moving. The film creates big dramatic twists that any other film would have had a field day with – Mahershala returns home and collapses in the drive, or the clone goes in for a trial run and Mahershala decides he has to return himself. However, the story backs away from pushing these twists into something that could have made for fine tension. Indeed, what we have is a film that lacks any real dramatic tension – the odd blip but mostly a film that is all pained emotive sincerity and niceness that avoids doing anything interesting with its idea.

Trailer here

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