Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Atonement

I wonder how professional critics schedule their reviews. Right now, I'm running a couple weeks behind, so my thoughts on Atonement reflect the couple extra weeks I've had to think about it, and it's settled well for me. If I'd written this right after coming out, though, it would have been a more negative review; I fidgeted more than usual during this movie, thought the big tracking shot on the beach was more than a little too showy, and didn't immediately grasp that the end explained some of my dissatisfaction with the middle.

Some spoiler-y stuff after the HBS/EFC review.

Atonement

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2008 at AMC Harvard Square #9 (first-run)

Atonement is a prestige picture with a little bit of everything - class as a barrier to romance, exquisite period detail, scenes of war that are awe-inspiringly horrible, beautiful photography, and narrative cleverness. A bit too much of the latter, actually; it threatens to make the film's emotional payoff little more than an intellectual exercise.

In our opening act, we meet the residents and guests at the Tallis country estate. Thirteen-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a serious child, always working at her typewriter, today working on a play to be put on at the party older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is throwing for their returning brother. Her cast will be visiting cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and her twin brothers Pierrot and Jackson (Felix and Charlie von Simson). Leon Tallis (Patrick Kennedy) has school friend Danny Hardman (Alfie Allen) in tow, figuring him to be a good match for Cecilia. A better match might be the cook's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), whom the family has put through college. Briony has something of a crush on him herself.

Briony has not been exposed to what a modern girl her age sees, though, leading her to make a terrible accusation which tears Cecilia and Robbie apart. The story then picks up some five years later, with Robbie fighting the war in France, Cecilia having broken from her family and volunteering as a nurse in London, and Briony passing on Cambridge to follow in her sister's footsteps, trying to directly or indirectly make up for what she'd done as a child.

The best part of Atonement is its first act; though we've seen many of this story's elements before, seeing so much of it from a child's perspective gives it a different feel than usual. That's not to say that the filmmakers play coy with what's happening, but they frequently will show things from Briony's point of view before revisiting the scene with her as a minor presence. Ronan plays Briony as a somewhat dour, self-centered kid; the kind other children don't really want much to do with and whom adults indulge. We learn enough about her that her actions at the end of the sequence can't be simply marked up to spite, ignorance, or the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony alone, while also picking up enough information to understand what is actually happening.

We also spend some time seeing Cecilia and Robbie recognize their attraction, and that's a nice subplot, but it doesn't really have enough weight to it that we necessarily buy into Cecilia trusting Robbie over her own sister, or for their later meeting and pining for each other to have the necessary intensity to carry much of the movie. The middle section is beautifully staged, but it suffers from the characters from the start spending too much time separated. McAvoy is pretty good in this segment, and he's got the best supporting cast and characterization of the bunch - his fellow soldiers take him for upper-class when he's all too well aware that the gentry abandoned him when it really counted - but his scenes with Knightley fall flat. Romola Garai is a good physical match for Ronan, but her Briony is less interesting than the younger edition: As much as writers and actors love characters who are motivated by guilt, they're pretty simple, in that they'll try to do the right thing and never feel it's enough.

As relatively bland as the middle section of the film is, it's necessary for the revelations of the epilogue, though it doesn't quite build to them the way the first act does. It's an interesting ending, which raises interesting ideas about the writer's urge to control stories, both within their manuscripts and in real life. It's a side of Briony we've seen from the very start of the film (a pan across toys which have been precisely placed rather than played with) and the way she chooses to exercise that control in the end is at least interesting for managing to be both terribly hypocritical and terribly earnest. It's an interesting idea, and benefits greatly from having Vanessa Redgrave lay the facts out, but it's something that has to be talked through rather than shown, and renders some of what we've previously seen moot.

I think the biggest issue with making the movie work as a whole is that we never get to see Briony be as smart as we're told she is. The reviews I've seen of McEwan's book describe it as much more about writing than the film is, which I think is necessary for the last act to resonate. Unfortunately, the only example of Briony's writing we get to see directly is giggle-worthy, an example of a child determined to use her entire large vocabulary (which absolutely fits her character at the time). What's shown of her later work doesn't really come across as brilliant, although that may be the point.

As uneven as the execution sometimes is, Atonement has a couple good ideas. It wisely saves the its best for the end, so there's something to talk about afterward. I'm still not sure whether that serves to disguise that Atonement is an average period piece or pull it together as more than the sum of its parts.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with nine other reviews

Spoilers Below!

I really don't think the middle works, but I wonder if it's not supposed to work fully. I figure that the Vanessa Redgrave version of Briony is doing something akin to what the Emma Thompson character does in Stranger than Fiction - she deliberately compromises her work as literature because she personally wants it to end differently. Thompson's Karen Eiffel really doesn't have any choice - she can't put killing Will Farrell's character on her conscience. Briony is doing something even more metaphysical; she's creating a world where her sister and her lover get to live happily ever after.

I like this idea, a lot, but Atonement doesn't give Briony as a writer nearly as much attention as Stranger than Fiction did, so the idea that she's creating this world, and is capable of doing so, doesn't come across. Deliberately making part of the story less than it could be is a pretty dangerous game, anyway, and I'm not quite convinced that's what the filmmakers were trying to do. For all I know, the World War II segments were supposed to be brilliant, not just a good movie but an illustration of what a great writer Briony is.

Either way, I don't think it quite works. But it's a nifty idea. It's worth watching Stranger than Fiction to see it handled better.

2 comments:

patrick said...

Atonement looked and felt a lot like Pride and Prejudice, impeccable setting, acting and dialogue. A bit depressing toward the end, but over all very well done.

i wonder: Is Briony's vocabulary typical for British 13 year olds?

Film Reviews said...

I loved this movie, completely agree with you about the ending too.