Academy voters need to bring an open mind and a box of tissues for the heart-wrenching and moving “Swan Song.” Spearheaded by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and Oscar nominee Naomie Harris, it’s difficult to find more pure and deliberate performances from two of today’s most revered actors. If this late-bloomer in the awards season can make enough noise and get enough butts in screening seats, a worthy play for several categories could be on the horizon. In addition, this seems like the first film that feels authentically identifiable to Apple Original Films, which will bode well for its awards brand moving forward. However, its most significant hurdle may be awards groups confusing it with the other “Swan Song” that opened over the summer.
“Swan Song” takes place in the near future where family man Cameron Turner (Ali) is diagnosed with a terminal illness. To shield his family from grief, he grapples with the decision to swap himself out with an identical clone to continue raising his children and being a loving husband.
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The best actor category is stacked already with Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”), Andrew Garfield (“Tick, Tick … Boom!”) and Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), who is also on the Apple Original Films roster. It could be more difficult for Ali to crack into the leading lineup, which would be the first of his career. Also serving as a producer, he can play the same campaign strategy as Will Smith on “King Richard.” If “Swan Song” beats the odds and manages to get nominated for best picture and actor, Ali would be the second Black man to be recognized for both in the same year (the first was Denzel Washington for “Fences”).
Ali’s career has been so enjoyable to watch unfold over the last few years. Always adding a sense of richness in more minor roles in films like “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012) and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” (2014), he ushered a colossal breakout moment with Barry Jenkins’ best-picture winner “Moonlight” (2016). Despite minimal screen time, he dominated the precursors that season, ultimately winning supporting actor and becoming the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award. He returned to the ceremony just two years later as the jazz musician and composer Don Shirley in “Green Book” (2018). Arguably a co-leading role, Ali swept the televised award shows and won his second Oscar in best supporting actor, making him the first African American to win two Oscars in the same category and just the second to win multiple competitive Oscars.
As viewers take in “Swan Song,” it’s interesting that after winning two Oscars, this is his first significant role, in which he had to take the helm. His credits post-Oscars have been voicing Uncle Aaron in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018), Vector in “Alita: Battle Angel” (2019) and as a post-credit whispering Blade in “Eternals” just a week ago.
Harris, who received her first nom for “Moonlight,” is gorgeously reverent, delivering another awards-worthy turn. The final scene will destroy every audience member’s tear ducts. She and Ali simply continue to make magic together.
Though brief, eight-time Oscar-nominee Glenn Close, Adam Beach and especially Awkwafina are bright spots throughout the film.
There are also worthy considerations for the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (who should have two nominations already for “Hostiles” and “The Grey”) and original score for Jay Wadley (who composed the underrated “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”).
While making his screenplay and directorial feature debut, Cleary is no stranger to the Oscar race. Already an Oscar-winner for the live action short “Stutterer” (2015), which he shared with Serena Armitage, he takes on this large-scale drama with assurance. He could factor in for the first-time directing category at the DGA Awards, so keep an eye on that race, which includes Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Tick, Tick … Boom!”), Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”) and Rebecca Hall (“Passing”). The screenplay and directing races may be too crowded for him this late in the game.
“Swan Song” is more than what it seems and will require an extra lift to get it in front of viewers, but if enough watch it, you can find a dark horse contender worthy of the accolades. I wish it had a different title because of the Udo Kier-starring vehicle from Todd Stephens and Magnolia Pictures. Unfortunately, that will confuse Academy members on their viewing platform that lists the features in alphabetical order.
“Swan Song” will be released in theaters and on Apple TV Plus on Dec. 17.
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