CLOUD ATLAS (15) **** Six stories in nearly three hours proves a big but rewarding ask

WITH three directors telling six stories spanning four centuries, Cloud Atlas, based on the acclaimed novel by David Mitchell, arrives as a crazed, startlingly ambitious fantasy epic.

Each of the stories share their main actors, and explore the interconnectedness of the universe, as we flash between each narrative strand without pause or warning, or occasionally sense.

In 1849, Jim Sturgess goes to a Pacific slave plantation where he runs foul of Tom Hanks' conniving doctor.

In the UK in the 1930s, Ben Whishaw goes to work as an assistant to Jim Broadbent's aging composer, in what is probably the most engaging and warmth-filled story.

His relationship with James D'Arcy connects this story to one taking place in 1970s San Francisco.

Here Halle Berry's reporter investigates an energy conspiracy involving Hugh Grant, with the help of Hanks' scientist, a decent section that's largely notable for the amount of footage shot in Glasgow.

There's also some Glasgow in a story set in the present day, in which Broadbent's publisher, facing money and gangster problems, finds himself imprisoned in an old people's home.

The themes of indenture and freedom that run through everything carry on into an episode set in 22nd century Korea, where Sturgess helps a young woman who has escaped her life of slavery.

This, along with an undefined fantasy future where certain people live like prehistoric tribes, may be the weakest, but that doesn't mean they're not worthwhile. With dazzling design, the Korea sequence provides the most effects and action and visual razzle-dazzle, but is emotionally cold.

Going farther into the future, Hanks plays a tribesman who acts as a guide for Berry's more advanced traveller, leading her up a mountain for confusing reasons. This passage frustrates, not least because Hanks and Berry converse in a corrupted idiom that renders much of what they say gibberish.

The three strongest, most coherent and most engaging stories are those set in the 20th century, and it can't be a coincidence that each of those was directed by Tykwer. The Wachowski siblings bring much of the visual panache that they did to The Matrix, and when they hit just the right note of editing, composition and action, it can be stunning.

With a vast budget and monumental in scope, Cloud Atlas could be seen as a wild act of folly. Its financial failure in the States means it's a gamble that hasn't paid off, which is a shame because it's rare that something this sprawling and enjoyable comes along.

There's an awful lot to wade through, and inevitably some of the stories are more engaging than others, but it manages to fill out the luxuriant running time quite well.

It's a huge investment for the audience, but the rewards are there, even if it might take a second viewing to discover them all.

Running Time: 172 mins

Directors: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski

SONG FOR MARION ** (PG) Cancer choir drama hits all the wrong notes

IN yet another grab for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pound, crusty pensioner Arthur (Terence Stamp) objects to his terminally ill wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) spending so much time at her beloved choir group, much to the exacerbation of his grumpiness.

This Sunday evening telly-standard drama is a change of pace for director Paul Andrew Williams, known before now for his gritty dramas and violent horrors, though hardly a successful one.

As a portrait of a long and loving marriage, there's little to find complaint with.

But that doesn't make the rest of a maudlin, predictable tale any easier to swallow, and a pushy attempt to wrench tears from the audience in the latter stages doesn't help.

Running Time: 93 mins

Director: Paul Andrew Williams

TO THE WONDER (12a) * Voiceovers and visions of nature but little plot

TERRENCE MALICK'S latest ethereal odyssey finds all his usual tropes present and correct – the wistful voice-overs, the fragmented scenes, the visions of nature.

The first shot of rippling water is pretty, but there's only so many that can be tolerated in the absence of story or emotion. Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko are a couple who return from France to live in the States in what is supposed to be a meditation on love and existence, with the closest it gets to a plot the question of whether they will get married or not.

There's barely a conventional scene in the whole misguided venture, with everything internalised through each of the characters voiceovers, though Affleck hardly speaks a line.