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1,300 Words on Robert Pattinson’s Name Being “Neil” in Tenet

We must conclude that Christopher Nolan has never seen The Inbetweeners

All I have for you is a word: Neil. Forget time inversion! Forget the stuff with all the bullets going backwards! The true mystery of Tenet is to be found elsewhere, in a name. Christopher Nolan's baffling new blockbuster is supposed to be packed with mind-blowing reveals, yet it speaks volumes that the film's most shocking moment comes thirty minutes in, as we're introduced to Robert Pattinson's louche, debonair handler – a floppy-haired, well-spoken Brit who seems like an attaché plucked right out of a Graham Greene novel.

Slouched in an armchair, dressed in a linen suit, he's disarmingly charming and far too cavalier for somebody tasked with preventing the end of the world. Yet what comes next messes with the fabric of the universe in more ways than any of Nolan's convoluted plottings ever could. It demands that we rethink everything we thought we knew about cinema, this auteur filmmaker, and our very existence. I'm talking about the moment that Pattinson's character casually informs audiences, as though it is actually possible to casually inform such a thing, that his name is “Neil.”

Take a moment to allow that to sit with you. Robert Pattinson, playing a character called Neil. Just Neil, too – no surname. It's not like we didn't suspect it was coming; the names of the film's characters were revealed well in advance of the movie. Hearing it spoken out loud is a different story, though, especially since I, like many, suspected Neil's would serve as a nom-de-plume, that we'd find out it was just a silly codename, that Nolan was trolling us, and that Neil's real name was – I don't know – Beckett, or Sanders, or Fowler. Heck, even Robert would have been fine?

It's not just me. Take a look on social media, where critics and movie-goers have also expressed their dismay and confusion, en masse. Responses vary from outright bafflement…

…to claims that Neil is not a sexy enough name for a character such as Neil.

Pattinson's performance, certainly the most playful in an otherwise humourless film, has already earned his character an instant cult following. Elsewhere, movie-goers have been quick to deem Neil – a man named Neil! – to be the true hero of the film. But to accept this is to accept that the hero of a Christopher Nolan blockbuster released in the year 2020 is named Neil. It seems to me that we, as a society, are not quite ready for such a thing.

As well as throwing up questions about the whole absurd idea of “names,” not to mention our built-in perception of what they suggest about a person's personality, it's rare that the naming of a character in a blockbuster inspires such a response from audiences. I've long been obsessed with the idea of the “the ideal character name,” mostly because there is a subtle art to getting it just right and you only tend to notice when it's done wrong. Nolan has a long history with awkward character names (see: every character in Inception). He's also the person who decided that Leonardo DiCaprio, the world's most famous movie star, could convincingly played a man named “Dom.”

Neil, like Dom, is not a name that screams “cinema!” In real life, there's nothing wrong with the name Neil. It's a perfectly normal name, like “Steve” or “Brian.” And while there is no set rule that denotes which names are suitable for the big screen and which aren't, our response to them using works on a gut level. All I can tell you is that Robert Pattinson playing a breezy secret agent called Neil feels inherently wrong in so many ways and Christopher Nolan does not seem to know this.

Inevitably, we come to what is perhaps the most famous fictional Neil of this modern era, at least here in the UK, a character who might just hold the key to so much of the collective response: Neil Sutherland from the 2008 British television phenomenon The Inbetweeners, played by actor Blake Harrison. For a generation of TV fans, mere mention of the word “Neil” is certain to conjure up thoughts of this well-meaning but idiotic teen buffoon – to the extent that it's impossible, more than a decade later, to separate the name from the character.

I suspect that the writers of The Inbetweeners even chose the name Neil to quickly suggest a specific type of English everyman, not so unlike the way that Karen – controversially – has come to symbolise a certain breed of middle-aged woman in the age of the internet. Neils, according to a history of film and television, can be loveable chaps, but they're also defined by a certain inoffensiveness. Neils are not care free types operating in a twilight realm with an air of sexy mystery and movie star good looks. The Inbetweeners' usage of the name Neil basically reaffirmed it as contraband for cool characters. I think we can conclude that Christopher Nolan has never seen The Inbetweeners.

Now we can only speculate as to whether Nolan realised the implications of calling his film's best character Neil, or was he entirely oblivious as to why it's such an ill-fitting mantel for his chosen actor (an actor, by the way, who will play Batman next year! Batman and Neil in the space of one year! Madness!). What did the executives and producers say when he told them he was calling a main character Neil? It is fascinating to envision what might have been going through his head as he sat down to write his script, scribbled the word “Neil,” and begin to imagine this man's inner life.

To date, Nolan is yet to properly acknowledge the choice of name, except to say: “We think he might be called Neil. You never really quite know what’s going on with these identities.” How very Nolan. Interestingly, Tenet's Neil bears a suspicious physical resemblance to the director, and can be glimpsed throughout sporting Nolan's trademark suit and scarf combo. What are we supposed to draw from this connection, except that Nolan thinks Neil is a dashing name? Is he trying to make Neil cool again? Perhaps the real intention was to give resurgence to Neil, to bring the name back from the brink of extinction. Before Tenet, maybe Neil was doomed to go the way of Graham. Perhaps this will birth a whole new generation of babies called Neil. Imagine!

There is arguably one other explanation, which also creates an exception to the rule regarding Neils in cinema: Robert De Niro's character in Michael Mann's seminal crime thriller Heat, who just happens to be called… Neil McCauley. Somehow, against the odds, De Niro makes this unlikely name work in Heat. Maybe because the character has a surname. Or is it because he's an American Neil? Do American Neils get a free pass? What we know for sure is that Nolan is a huge fan of Heat and that it was a massive influence on The Dark Knight. With its car chases and gunfights, it also bears stylistic similarities to Tenet. Was this just a case of the director slipping in a sly reference to one of his favourite films?

It will be interesting to see how Neil, the name, goes down in the States when Tenet is unveiled there in mere days and where it appears to have far less cultural baggage. Will US critical reviews pass comment on the naming of Neil in the same way that so many UK critics did in their own reviews? In the meantime, if anyone gets a chance to speak to Christopher Nolan, don't waste the opportunity to get the bottom of this. Forget asking him about the plot machinations or the true meaning behind the palindromic title. Ask him what led to the decision to call his film's coolest character Neil and give us the closure we're so desperately craving.

Tenet is now streaming in UK cinemas everywhere. You can read our full review here.

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