Benjamin Cleary’s ‘Swan Song’: Poetry for the Heart, Soul, and Consciousness: A Review

Filmmaker Benjamin Cleary uses an economy of language, colors, sounds to weave his futuristic tale of love, loss, and regeneration in Swan Song.

**Some spoilers included**

It is a poem, lament, and dirge—this labyrinthine journey—our only clues: facial expressions, whispers, and random, but soothing retrospectives. We’re riding on the train with Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali), and quickly understand its destination. Cameron, wearing expensive tortoiseshell frames, a nose stud, and a skull cap, sketches a haunting image of a man falling gracefully but helplessly from the sky near a bridge. He pauses, drawing to converse with an AI-powered crew member–a slick-looking motorized cart that guesses his order: oat milk latte, no sugar. Cameron also requests an “Echo Bar” (a chocolate bar in a lavender wrapper), which becomes the bridge to his future. An effervescent Poppy (Naomie Harris), whose face lights up the screen, sits across from him, dialoguing, between French and English, with someone; fervently protecting her brother’s sensitivity. We learn much about them both in this scene without barely a word uttered. And considering the definition of echo, which includes “something similar to something that happened or existed before,” Cleary offers many clues in this opening stanza.

Swan Song is a speculative tale that creates a world where literal duplicity is possible. Cleary has Cameron weigh the ultimate sacrifice: not saying goodbye to our loved ones to spare their grief.  Is regeneration morally right? Is he willing to die alone, knowing they are none the wiser? These questions and the narrative surrounding them almost disguise the sci-fi nature of the film. Driverless cars, AI, and organ replication are believable and, in some form, possible now. So, it is almost conceivable that a human being could twin itself one day. Cleary doesn’t ask us to contend with monsters under the bed or a disappearing hero (though I loved his idea of a 3D emoticon that speaks in our voice and then goes poof!). He makes us think deeply about how much and how selflessly we can love in all its versions: from romantic to familial, to self-love to eternal.  

Cameron and Poppy (Naomie Harris)

Cameron is given opportunities to weigh this question with others in on his secret, like Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close), the mastermind behind the cloning. Close’s genius creates Scott, a not quite mad scientist, in only a handful of scenes. She balances anxiety for her experiment’s success and a sympathetic ear for the emotions that Cameron and Jack (Ali), his clone, experience in their subdued battle of wills. Another patient, Kate (Awkwafina), is a mentor for Cameron to help him consider moving beyond his guilt of lying to protect his loved ones. Though acerbic, Kate’s wit is a breathing space needed between the heaviness. It gives room, even for Cameron, to show a side of himself rarely seen—his ability to be silly. 

Cameron and Kate (Awkwafina)

Swan Song is gentle; Cameron’s quietude: his voice, tone, the whir of the driverless car that drops him off, how he checks on his sleeping son, Cory (Dax Rey), then Poppy. We are lulled by the ease between them, pulled into the possibilities of a future. But the muted colors, bareness, the thick and lonely forest clue us in—this present moment with Cameron has a limited tenure. We are given insight into why his decision was within the realm of integrity. In one scene, Poppy states if regeneration brought her mother back, then “screw the ethics,” that if she couldn’t tell, she’d “take that.” In a later memory, she’s playing “Sometimes It Snows in April,” the elegiac song Prince originally recorded 31 years (to the day) before his death. Poppy, a music teacher for children with learning difficulties, emerging from a year of grief after the loss of her twin brother, Andre (Nyasha Hatendi), ends the song: “Sometimes I wish that life was never-ending / But all good things, they say, never last / And love, it isn’t [hard] until it’s past.

Though Swan Song drew me in and held me, some moments left me hanging in what felt like an unintended way. I waited for the other shoe to drop at any moment; it took me a minute to feel comfortable that this wouldn’t take a dark turn. Poppy shows Cameron a onesie they purchased for their son when he was an infant in one scene. It seemed very specific; I kept waiting for it to be the clue to the clone being found out. But it never came back up. In another scene that left me skeptical about the veracity of Dr. Scott, Cameron and Kate find out that they, along with a previous patient, shared the same oncologist. Something seemed more ominous about this revelation than coincidental, but that was the last mention of it. And in another moment, the family dog, Pig, who we know was faithful to Cameron, growls at “Jack” when he first appears. Later, when he sees both Cameron and “Jack,” he whimpers and runs away, confused. Again, this felt like a small detail, but something I kept wondering about—does the dog become more comfortable once the transition is complete…or?

Cameron and “Jack” face each other

Though this was a personal narrative for Cleary, its timing and its melancholia beg a universal question. Filmed between November 2020 and February 2021, mid-pandemic, we all were residing in a world that even now at times feels like its own sci-fi movie. Considering the sheer number of deaths (over 5 million worldwide) and illnesses (almost 250 million), we might’ve often felt forced to observe our own mortality in the mirror. Many had an unfortunately similar struggle as Cameron, with potentially more straightforward but often politically complicated questions to answer: If we could shield our loved ones from grief, and most importantly, illness and death, would we get vaxxed and wear masks? Are we prepared to leave without a conscious goodbye?

Webster defines a swan song as “a farewell appearance or final act or pronouncement; derived from the myth that an otherwise silent swan sings a beautiful tune before its death.” This film glides along with a hush, and, in the end, its music: two people whose love survives it all—even their physical existence—transcendent…

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