Oppenheimer, review: Cillian Murphy dazzles as the destroyer of worlds (2024)

On a basic give-‘em-what-they-paid-for level, Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary new film had to have a convincing explosion at its centre – and on that front, be assured it delivers with flesh-quaking aplomb. But what you also realise, within a matter of seconds, is that it would have also been impossible to pull off without Cillian Murphy’s eyes.

In the lead role of J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the nuclear bomb, Murphy’s faraway gaze not only convinces you that he can actually see the invisible power that crackles between subatomic particles, but also the gravest, most unforgivable consequences of his unleashing it upon the world. In times of quiet contemplation, it’s as if his attention has been caught by a black hole on the far side of the galaxy; at points of anger or tension, his irises could be the crowns of two tiny, cobalt mushroom clouds.

Those eyes might be the neatest way to sum up what Nolan and his cast and crew have achieved here: Oppenheimer is a film that works simultaneously on the most intimate and cosmic scales. It’s at once a speeding roller-coaster and a skin-tingling spiritual portrait; an often classically minded period piece that only Nolan could have made, and only now, after a quarter-century’s run-up.

It unfolds simultaneously in two time periods – Fission, in the scramble towards the fateful Trinity test of the weapon of 1945, and Fusion, in its rattled aftermath – with the structure see-sawing between Oppenheimer’s thirst to crack open the known surface of reality and his horror at what he finds beneath it.

Early scenes of him as a student show him devouring the output of Stravinsky, Picasso, TS Eliot: music, art and poetry all split apart, with untold energy freed in the process, by emerging visionaries in those fields. In a Maximum Nolan move, Oppenheimer positions its lead as their logical heir, and his bomb as the ultimate modernist work.

Playing Oppenheimer from his early 20s to late 50s, the 47-year-old Murphy gives the performance of his life, imbuing Oppenheimer’s body with an enthralling nervous eroticism and his voice with a noirish musicality that reminds you of Bogart. The film both manages to make subatomic theory coolly sexy – honestly, five stars for that alone – and seed its sex scenes with Nolan’s signature jangly existential unease.

Meanwhile, both in the bedroom and out of it, the director’s dialogue is strikingly elegant and crisp, giving us the measure of characters within single lines.

“You’re married to Doctor Harrison?” Oppenheimer asks his future wife Kitty, superbly played by Emily Blunt, at a party. “Not very,” she casually replies.

Washed along on the surges and throbs of Ludwig Göransson’s gorgeously relentless score, the script’s sheer efficiency allows ensemble members like Benny Safdie, as the permanently sweltering physicist Edward Teller, and Tom Conti, as a cuddly yet shrewd Albert Einstein, to deliver juicy supporting turns in just a handful of scenes. But it also equips the major second-tier players with the material for indelible supporting performances: Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock, and most notably Robert Downey Jr, who is on the form of his career as Lewis Strauss, the hawkish chair of the Atomic Energy Commission who takes growing exception to Oppenheimer’s (belated) crisis of conscience.

Downey’s character becomes increasingly important in the film’s third act – a Hitchco*ckian manhunt disguised as a legal procedural, in which Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the United States is mercilessly scrutinised. But by this point, the two moments most audience members will have been waiting for – the Trinity test explosion, and the famous line from the Bhagavad Gita (“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”) have already been hit.

The exact context in which the latter emerges is simply too inspired to spoil. As for the former – which must surely be the most watched explosion in the history of the moving image – Nolan finds a way to re-stage it that makes its splendour and significance feel terrifyingly fresh.

“Try not to set the sky on fire,” Matt Damon’s Lieutenant General Leslie Groves darkly jokes before the red switch is pressed – having learned that the blast, once sparked, might not burn out until the Earth’s whole atmosphere has been consumed. Nolan’s film also makes you feel the seismic, no-route-back import of that single button push: it’s like witnessing history itself being split.

15 cert, 180 min. In cinemas from Friday July 21

Oppenheimer, review: Cillian Murphy dazzles as the destroyer of worlds (2024)

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