Mahershala Ali gives a heartfelt performance in this elegant and rather melancholy sci-fi mystery with which Irish film-maker Benjamin Cleary makes his impressive feature debut. It’s an unsettling picture in the tradition of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.
The time is the not-too-distant future in which Cameron (Ali) is a graphic designer married to Poppy (Naomie Harris), whom he met-cute one morning on a commuter train over a misunderstanding concerning a candy bar (a micro-comedy-of-errors routine which I do have to say has already been used in a number of short films). They now have a small son. But Cameron has a terminal illness and fears revealing it to Poppy will devastate her, as she is only just getting over a family tragedy.
So he secretly approaches a new biotech firm headed by the enigmatic Dr Scott (Glenn Close), who specialises in creating perfect healthy carbon copies of people who can then slot right back into the patient’s life, an avatar with all his or her memories – minus the ones about this procedure – while the originals self-sacrificially live out their days on the remote island owned by this corporation.
Now, of course, it’s an open question as to how the modestly-off Cameron could possibly afford what must be a terribly expensive business – but no matter. Maybe it’s on his insurance. Anyway, Cameron splitting into two, and then having profound and angry second thoughts about this doppelganger taking over his life, is very commandingly and convincingly portrayed. Some script hints in the early part of the film seem to be pointing to a certain icily ironic twist, but Cleary’s film keeps you guessing and there’s a strange, sad seriousness to it all which this great-looking movie brings off with some style.
• Swan Song is released on 17 December in cinemas and on Apple TV+
• This article was amended on 16 December 2021 to change the rating from three to four stars.