Monday, February 18, 2008

Rude Awakening: Atonement

[With the Academy Awards approaching, this week The Cooler is posting reviews of the Best Picture nominees, written upon the films’ release in the author’s pre-blog era. Feel free to use the comments section to argue why your favorite nominee should win or why any of these films didn’t deserve to be nominated.]

As movie settings go, I never tire of stately English manors: the majestic castle-like buildings, the sprawling magnificent grounds, and don’t forget the accents! I love it all. To the eyes and ears, these spaces exude dignity and perfection, as if not even a blade of grass has ever been askew. And yet when we see these places, the nose always detects a whiff of something damp, troubled and altogether unseemly growing in the shadows like mold. If these walls could talk they’d tell us not to believe our eyes. And, oh, how a young Briony Tallis needed that warning!

Briony is the central figure in director Joe Wright’s Atonement, based on the novel by Ian McEwan and adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton. She’s played in youth, around 13, by Saoirse Ronan with a light sweetness and beyond-her-years determination. As the story begins, Briony is an inhabitant at an English manor possessing all the aforementioned characteristics and then some. She spends portions of her summer days tagging around with her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and harmlessly flirting with one of the good-natured hired hands, Robbie (James McAvoy). But mostly she writes (stories and plays), tapping into a fertile imagination that eventually causes trouble for everyone.

No more about the plot though. Not now, at least. Not in this way. If you’ve read Atonement, you know all its dirty secrets, from the simple to the subversive. But if not, you deserve to discover the movie’s intricacies as they arrive. Suffice to say though that in the span of one day Briony witnesses things she doesn’t understand, not in their immediate condition or in their broader context. She sees a fight between Cecilia and Robbie, and a letter that wasn’t supposed to see daylight, and an aggressive sexual encounter and a crime. But she never sees the truth.

With great skill and apparent ease, Wright and editor Paul Tothill make sure we see the view from both sides of the keyhole. Pivotal scenes play twice, first from Briony’s distant and naïve perspective and then from up close and personal. The technique allows us to not just experience Briony’s viewpoint but to truly understand it, transporting us back to the time in our childhoods when the subtleties of adult shorthand and social graciousness played above our heads. Bolstered by this kind of expert filmmaking, the first act of Atonement is as symphonic as it is calculated. Dario Marianelli’s clever score morphs the sound of typing keys into a vigorous musical pulse that makes it seem as if a performance of Riverdance is unfolding behind the screen, and Knightley and McAvoy infuse the movie with lust and passion to balance Briony’s precociousness and suspicion. But as soon as the movie leaves the manor, much of the thrill leaves with it.

Over its long second act, Atonement is little better than ordinary. Robbie is off fighting in World War II, although nowhere near the action. Cecilia is living in London but doing nothing much. And Briony, now played at 18 by Ramola Garai, is working as a nurse. The Briony story thread does well to capture the gruesome product of all those gunfights and explosions that we often cheer at the theater, while at the same time showcasing the courage of women during the war (a significant subplot almost never recognized in film). But with that exception, Atonement doesn’t do gray and grim as effectively as it had achieved sunny and sensual. Exhibit A is a cut-free, 4.5-minute tracking shot of Robbie and fellow soldiers walking through the wreckage and hysteria of Dunkirk. The technically-impressive sequence, which must have been hell to design, is meant to inspire a feeling of Apocalypse Now-like helplessness, but instead it just draws attention to itself. It’s a big showy nothing.

If that were the only time Wright’s audaciousness thwarted the movie’s well-earned elegance, Atonement might have recovered. But the film’s bold third act – more of an epilogue, really – is nothing short of disastrous. I’ll dance around the specifics, but I offer a spoiler warning just the same: After seducing us with romance for almost two full hours, Atonement twists its plot so forcefully that it snaps into ill-fitting pieces. The error isn’t the plot twist itself but its implementation, which mutilates the movie’s otherwise enjoyable tone. So jarring is the transition implemented by Wright and Tothill that I suspect even readers of McEwan’s novel will find themselves thrown by the sudden shift, which couldn’t be any more incongruous if the movie were Citizen Kane and Rosebud turned out to be a T-Rex from Jurassic Park.

If that’s an exaggeration, it’s only a slight one. I’ve wrestled with the notion that Wright must think he’s serving his movie by sucker-punching the audience; on paper the tactic makes some sense considering that the plot twist should feel like a blow to the gut. But as with the Dunkirk sequence, the filmmaking employed for the epilogue is so out of kilter that it nullifies any good intentions and makes the details of the twist almost moot. Never mind that the use of a documentary-style interview to wrap up loose ends is lazy storytelling.

Lost then among the movie’s wreckage are four tremendous performances, by Ronan and Garai as Briony (their resemblance is uncanny) and by Knightley and McAvoy. Knightley needs to do little more than look the part as the covet-worthy and sassy Cecelia, but to that end she is perfect. McAvoy’s performance is deeper: Robbie’s sly smile after drafting a naughty note to Cecilia makes for one of the best little moments of the year. And together Knightley and McAvoy ace a reunion scene that’s layered with love, longing, anger, sadness and hope.

Scenes like that one show how special Atonement might have been had it stayed at the manor with Cecilia and Robbie. It might not have been unique, and it wouldn’t have met McEwan’s design, but Knightley and McAvoy would have made that movie deeply fulfilling. Instead what we have here is a WW-II love story equivalent of The Wizard Of Oz, albeit a version in which Dorothy had never heard of Kansas. Being stirred from a magical dream into a black-and-white reality is one thing. Being woken by a bucket of icy water to the face is something else.


Ali Arikan said...

I actually enjoyed this film better than I thought I would. One factor, though, was a bit too distracting for me, and that was Vanessa Redgrave. Just one of those actors who's never, ever done it for me.

Mark said...

Jason, first: good idea to reprise your reviews of these nominated movies.

I have to disagree with you though on the ending of "Atonement." In fact, this was the one point you made in the Bellamy Awards that tempted me to write a response. I thought the Vanessa Redgrave scene was excellent and that the mood and setting shift worked perfectly. It's supposed to be a punch to the gut, both in terms of plot and style.

The book does essentially the same thing. The only difference is that in the book it's done by narration -- tricky to adapt to the screen. I thought this device was a smart way to convey McEwan's idea.

"Atonement" is not my favorite film of the year. I don't think it should or will win best picture. But I definitely think it deserves to be considered among the best -- excellent tracking shot and epilogue included.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ali & Mark: Atonement still landed in my top 20 of the year, so I appreciated its strengths: the thrilling first act and moments of the second (particularly the reunion scene at the café and Briony’s moment with the dying patient). As for the punch to the gut: I concede in my review that it's intended. But I found the stylistic shift merely disorienting, not affecting in terms of the story. Even then, I might have bought in. But, really, is there anything lazier than a denouement in which the character looks us straight in the eye and actually speaks it out for us?

As for the tracking shot: I call it a "big showy nothing," and I stand by that. Yeah, it gets the movie geeks (and I’m one of them) geeked up, and then what? Would a cut halfway through have ruined the impact of the scene thematically? If so, why? I haven’t figured out when, but sometime this spring I’m planning on examining the implementation of uncut tracking shots (hmm, something tells me Alfonso Cuaron might come up) and when they work (as in, actually affect the general audience) and when they do nothing more but call attention to themselves. I'd say Atonement's tracking shot is a case of the latter. I talked to two non-geeks (separately) who saw the movie and brought it up in conversation. Their analysis: "That scene with all the walking around? What was the point?" The easy answer is to say it was to highlight the hysteria of Dunkirk. But I think it's an example of cinematography showboating.

Mark said...

OK, showboating. But pretty good show ...


Kevin J. Olson said...

I couldn't agree more with you here Jason. I think this film is maddening: I want to love it, but I just can't bring myself to do it. I love the reunion scene you speak of between Knightley and McAvoy. It's a powerful scene acted to perfection. I did think some of the editing got kind of annyoing by the end of the film.

My problems with the film (I initially placed it in my top 10 of 2007 despite its flaws) stem from the fact that I was such a huge fan of the novel. I had read it twice and skimmed it a third time right before the movie came out, and I it was just hard for me to imagine that anyone could get a novel about the power of words, and how they can destroy people, and get that theme on screen without failing. Perhaps I was too close to the material (I think McEwan is a god and might just be the best author we have working's a two man competition between him and Rushdie...), but I just felt like everything about this movie was falling short of my expectations -- or rather how I envisioned it.

About the tracking shot: I think it is aesthetically perfect...but you're right, what does it do to further the narrative? It is quite showy, and even though out of context it's a great show, it was never intened to be out of context. While writing the novel McEwan stated that he wanted to do a WWII novel, but he didn't Robbie to be near the action, he wanted it to be about the journey to Dunkirk, and the film doesn't show this well at all...they really jump right into.

Anyway, back to the shot: you're right that a lot of these film geeks (and like you I'm one, too) losing their shit over these long tracking shots. The biggest offender is Children of Men which is a mediocre movie that praised to heights it had no business being praised to all because of the tracking shot.

Think about the great tracking shots of all time...I'm sure your mind went right to Touch of Evil. Now think about that famous opening track -- it coils and weaves through the seedy streets, introducing us to key characters and ratcheting up the tension for a key moment that kick starts the investigation. In regards to narrative it serves its purpose by introducing s to characters and allowing us to see what the town is like that Vargas will be investigating. Aesthetically it gives the viewer all kinds of information about the seediness of the town, the slanted/askew morals that its Sheriff Quinlan live by, and tells us that nothing in this town is normal, noting is going to be conventional.

That's what a tracking shot like that should do, and I think these modern filmmakers who do it, do it for the effect, and not as a means for using the aesthetics to mete out information about the films themes.

Anyway. I know this is an old post...but I've been catching up with all of your reviews the last couple of days and this film always gets me to leave a comment.

Great stuff Jason.