Saturday, January 19, 2008

Atonement: The power of secrets and lies

Before diving any further into Joe Wright's often very challenging movie about the novel by Ian McEwan, let me predict that you will hear the word "Atonement" more than any other when the Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday morning. That's not really an assessment of how much I liked the movie (which I mostly did), just an observation about what we can expect very soon (and why, of course, it was given a not-at-all-coincidental wide release this week.)

If I was unable to fall in love with the movie, that fact comes from the built-in structure of both the novel and the flick. I won't spoil the major twist, which feels perfectly natural in McEwan's book but a little forced at the end of a two-hour movie, but I will say that by design it gives a remoteness to the love story at the tale's core (the love story which, of course, gives them a double dose of movie-poster eye candy with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, even if this movie in so many ways belongs to young Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis.)

The movie is at its strongest in the first 45 minutes or so, when Wright almost perfectly captures the atmosphere that nurtures all the best and worst aspects of Briony's budding creativity. Though the almost constant clacking of typewriter keys turns into a gimmick far too quickly, it's easy to see how she could be led to (willfully?) misinterpret what she saw one evening at the manor house where she was raised, an act of betrayal which will permanently alter the lives of her sister Cecilia (Knightley) and Robbie (McAvoy), the son of a family servant who lusts for Cecilia (and, in particular and understandably, a certain part of her anatomy.)

I don't want to give away any more than that, because much of the magic of this opening portion comes in discovering through whose eyes you're watching it all unfold. At its best, in particular with the closing shot of Robbie returning home with the defiant twins in tow, it's as good as and strongly invokes Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game."

It's at this point, when the flick shifts to the wartime lives of Cecilia, Robbie and Briony, that it develops a rather severe distance (again, much of that can be credited to what we learn at the end, but I stlll found it to be a drag on the viewing experience.) There's just, as hard as Knightley and McAvoy tried, a lack of passion to the tale that prevents you from growing more attached to either of them, or to Briony (who will be played by two more actresses as the story continues.)

Which isn't to say there aren't some stunning visual sequences in the second half, particularly the five-minute-or-so scene on the beach at Dunkirk, where Robbie and two of his fellow soldiers arrive in pretty rough shape. It's probably the most impressive set piece of 2007 (though I still prefer the arrival of Remy in the kitchen at Gusteau's in "Ratatouille"), and rivals what Alfonso Cuaron put together at that burned-out building in "Children of Men.") Just as an aside, I was waiting to see if Wright would let the black soldier in their ragtag group have any lines at all, which made me laugh way louder than I should have when he finally gets to utter his two-word, dead-on assessment of their rather dire straits.

In all, I would urge that you don't let any of my qualms let me stop you from seeing this fine flick, the kind of satisfying fare for adults (an impressive 50 or so of whom turned out for my 11 a.m. showing Friday morning) that we just don't get often enough for me. And as far as the Oscars go, it hopefully sets up a great battle royale in the category of Best Supporting Actress between Amy Ryan for "Gone Baby Gone," Kelly Macdonald for "No Country for Old Men" and young Ms. Ronan for her superb work here (and hopefully an appearance from Allison Janney for "Juno" too.) My heart's with Macdonald and my money's on Ryan, but I wouldn't count out Ronan either if "Atonement" goes on the awards roll I'm expecting.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some bills to pay, some grocery shopping to do and then a John Sayles (huzzah!) movie to watch at my local multiplex. Peace out.


James said...

I don't usually like romance flicks but this one really impressed me--and that's saying a lot since I normally loathe them.

I'd be very satisfied to see it win the Oscar for best picture.

Reel Fanatic said...

If I were a betting man, James, which I used to be, I'd put the best odds on this indeed winning best picture, with the contenders finishing second and third (if they actually released such numbers) being "No Country for Old Men" and then "There Will Be Blood"

Mercurie said...

Beyond being a little behind on my movie viewing (I still haven't seen Sweeney Todd yet), I have to admit I wasn't planning on seeing Atonement in the theatre. But I might just go see it now, even if I am not sure I will fall in love with the movie either.

Barry said...

How did you feel about Vanessa Redgrave?

Reel Fanatic said...

I liked her enough, Barry, but it did strike me as kind of an odd choice ... The second actress to play Briony (whose name escapes right at the moment) showed how she was kind of sleepwalking through life, unable to connect with anyone or, of course, "atone" for her actions ... At the end, having an actress with the presence of Redgrave was just more than a little jarring

RC said...

i think it's interseting you think atonement will be said more than any other film.

it seems like it can go either way...i guess we'll see.

this is such a challenging book to make into a movie...and i feel like that accounts for so much of the disconect and the gimmicky type-writer stuff got on my nerves, but at the same time was effective and makes me forsee a oscar score nod in it's direction.

can't wait until the noms come out, and hope more people see all the films that are potentials.

Bob said...

You're not far off from where I am with this film. I couldn't really connect to it either. So far as the highly touted tracking shot I agree that it's technically incredible. Just an astounding feat. BUT... all I could think about was, "Wow, this is an awesome shot." Took me right out of the movie which happened to me a few other times with this one. It seemed like the spectacle was overshadowing the emotion that the spectacle should have been accentuating. Overall though I do think it's a very good movie and I think it will get a slew of nominations and Oscars. I'll be annoyed if it beats out "No Country" and "There Will Be Blood," which I think are both far superior. Of course if it were up to me "Hot Fuzz" would be up for Best Picture, so I guess I wouldn't fit in with the Oscar voters :)

Reel Fanatic said...

Comedy will probably never get enough respect from academy voters for flicks like "Hot Fuzz" or my favorite comedy of the year, "Superbad," to even get a bit of serious consideration, which is a serious shame

J. Marquis said...

I totally agree...I loved the first half of it (and I generally don't enjoy period pieces) but I felt disconnected in the second half. It looked good, however.

DCMovieGirl said...

Excellent assessment. :)

And yes, my fingers to, are crossed for Miss Roanan.

James said...

I have wished for a long time that the Oscars make a Best Comedy award but I guess those awards are too snooty for comedy.

Often times comedy is harder to pull of than drama.

Reel Fanatic said...

I agree with you that comedy has been criminally underappreciated for many years now, James, but I'm still not sure I can support the segregation of it into a new category .. It would, of course, guarantee a winner each year, but to me it would be the final proof that the academy just considers comedies to be a lesser form of art than the serious dramas it just laps up

Lorraine said...

Finally got around to seeing this one. Your review is spot on. It was gorgeous to look at and I wasn't the least bit bored but I couldn't completely connect with it...which puzzled me since the style and time period are right up my alley. Thanks to you I feel better about my puzzlement.

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