“In a few years,” estimates Dr. Scott (Glenn Close, in a glorified cameo), her experimental treatment will turn doppelgängers into a sign of good fortune and the concept of swan song obsolete. There is now a way to keep on living even when all the numbered days have been accounted for. The catch of this miracle? In the same reality, there will be two of you—one at the doctor’s place and one at, say, home eating dinner with your family.
Indeed, writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s feature debut has much to do with cloning, but it aims to be more reflective and personal akin to Never Let Me Go instead of bombastic and conspiracy-rich à la The 6th Day. Even with dissonances in exploring the concept in its desired way, Swan Song can still claim success because of the heart-rending leading turn from Mahershala Ali (who also serves as executive producer).
As an artist, Cameron (Ali) can always see beauty in everything. It’s from a sketch, discreetly made, that he finds his other half, musician Poppy (Naomie Harris, underused but effective nonetheless), and from there, the button-cute result of their love, Cory (Ace LeVere, Aiden Alejuwon, and Dax Rey, over the years). Unfortunately, fate has decided it is time for Cameron to embrace an ugliness known as death; a terminal illness makes it the slow kind, but the endpoint is the same, nonetheless. Cue Dr. Scott, her three-person clinic—psychologist/head tech Dalton (Adam Beach) and assistant tech Rafa (Lee Shorten) are the other two—and, of course, a 2.0 version of Cameron.
Ali’s acting mastery is evident in Swan Song in the way he makes tangible the distinct kind of pain Cameron has to endure. Flare-ups will occur, but Cleary’s internal-based vision seems to suggest they are from the character experiencing a happiness that becomes more toxic than the illness doing its number. For all intents and purposes, Dr. Scott’s treatment is an advanced white lie. A person’s existence is continued via their clone while their being perishes.
This truth is agonizing as much as it is merciful. In his last moments being a husband, a father and a member of society, Cameron has to relinquish control, although doing so fulfills his wish to die alone. Through said agony and mercy, Ali can carry a respective weight on Cameron’s soul outright, at times just with his eyes.
Also supporting Ali is the winning collaboration of Annie Beauchamp’s sets and Masanobu Takayanagi’s photography. Other than drawing up the lo-fi sci-fi nature of the world, the lines seen and angles chosen both tie to and amplify Swan Song’s central drama, the decision to resist or to accept. Sometimes, the sense of modernity, mainly seen in Dr. Scott’s facility’s precise lines and the camera’s measured movements when it’s there, will be broken by the presence of something natural in the periphery.
When the film goes outside, to follow Cameron and fellow patient Kate (Awkwafina), or to recall key moments with Poppy and Cory, there is freedom in the way curves and straights mesh and how they are captured, but they in the end further emphasize the inevitable. The unspoken link between Cameron and the Vancouver vistas alone creates immersion, but when combined with Ali’s full awareness, the process is heightened to a greater degree.
From that immersion, however, comes the realization that the film can be repetitive. Awkwafina’s Kate is a form of reassurance for Cameron, a guarantee that the treatment works, but that is also Close’s Dr. Scott’s role. Wouldn’t it add more tension—and make the experience more concise—when we have just her to make our deductions? The idea of certainty, however little, clashes with that of processing mortality. On the side of the visuals, what starts out as careful now has room to be interpreted as calculated, which undercuts Ali’s efforts. Fortunately, however, as Cleary’s direction and scripting assert that the film’s unfolding is dependent on whoever embodies Cameron, these flaws in turn double as more space for Ali to prove that a person is at their most human at curtain call.
Swan Song is in cinemas and Apple TV+ on December 17. You can watch the trailer here.