Monday, August 20, 2007

Film review: ATONEMENT (Joe Wright, 2007)

Britain’s bestselling author Ian McEwan is a wonderfully rich and articulate writer, but he has often struck me (and I know I'm probably alone here) as a man of too many words. Enduring Love, despite its unique and gripping plot, was overly descriptive, and even his recent novella, On Chesil Beach, could have done with being 50 pages shorter. I felt exactly the same way about Atonement when I first started reading it, there were too many “rhymes”, too many adjectives, to a point where it almost seem to obsess with the minutiae and try to hold the story back.

Then I realised that this time, it was intentional. Bringing the surprising turn of events that served the book so well onto the big screen was a huge challenge, but Joe Wright, who’s 2005 effort Pride & Prejudice ranked amongst one of the loveliest films of that year, was more than apt a man to do it: talented, engaging with his actors, focused and precise, he has given Atonement the big-screen fare, and more.

13-year-old Briony Tallis is a girl with a huge imagination. The film starts at her completion of a play, “The Trials of Arabella”, a morality tale on love and the dangers of being too hasty with one’s emotions. From her opening line in the prologue, various multisyllabic words that I didn’t understand were employed, and the audience giggles at her pretension: evidently, this is a girl whose world is shaped with words, regardless of whether or not she understands them.

Witnessing her sister Cecilia dive into a pool as their housekeeper’s son Robbie watches after her, Briony pictures as scene she has no understanding of, and, by the end of the day, she will have changed lives for the worse, and she will spend the rest of her life regretting and trying to atone this mistake.

The first act of the film, set in the picturesque country house, effectively conveys the sweltering heat of the British Summer and the mental unrest that comes with it. The camera never stays still, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey even used Christian Dior stockings over the lenses to portray the heat and its effects on the residents.

As Briony starts thinking about what she doesn’t understand, trying to write a play of it, Dario Marianelli’s haunting score, which features the rhythmic tapping of typewriter keys, reverberates in the background, to continually remind the audience that something bad is about to happen.

And so it does. Without giving too much about the plot away, suffice to say it involves a note and a dirty word. As anyone who has read the book will tell you, the line in which Robbie types out his innermost desires, is a very shocking jolt to the reader, not least because previously, the book had been so proper, so contained.. Even knowing that this moment would occur in the movie, I was still surprised by it. The word is glorified in the film, and each letter of that sentence is typed out, frame by frame, for the audience to read and work out for themselves. The word is then played back several times, to a point where it almost gets farcical.

That Atonement is not afraid to use humour in its deepest, most dramatic moments works to its advantage. There are several scenes with the young Briony (mainly involving her snooping) that made the audience laugh ironically, one scene in particular involving Cecelia at the dinner table. However, this is essentially a drama, and the pace and tone of the film are appropriate to its genre. To add to the genre, different events are replayed from different perspectives to show what something has the appearance of being, and what it really is. This device, though not new, works excellently for Atonement.

The second act of the film, set 4 years later, is much grittier and less pretty to watch. Robbie is now a soldier in France, and pines to get back to Cecelia. The horrors of war are not underplayed, and in one excellently-filmed tracking shot, the camera meanders through a chaotic mess of soldiers. Robbie, who had turned out so well before, has not lost practically all of his beauty, and retains only his accent. Similarly, back at home, soldiers with all sorts of disturbing injuries are shown. It is refreshing to see a film that, rather than portraying the war as some sort of patriotic honour, instead shows the horror and suffering that it causes.

In what could only be a nod to David Lean with his country houses, upper middle classes and epic romances, Joe Wright chose for his actors to give performances of the pre-Lee Strasburg era. And the cast rise up to the challenge admirably. As the young Briony, Saoirse Ronan is pitch-perfect, conveying her youthful innocence as well as her curiosity, a curiosity that proves fatal. Her sense of knowing about things she clearly doesn’t is infuriating, but Ronan prevents us from denouncing her entirely, reminding us that she is, after all, just a child.

Keira Knightley, who will be keen to forget her “performance” in her other 2007 venture, Pirates of the Caribbean III, doesn’t do anything majorly wrong here, and at times even earns the audience’s respect and sympathies as the loyal lover. Romola Garai plays the older, more wise Briony with conviction and a touch of sadness (though one of her deliveries in a confrontation scene went a bit wrong and sounded wooden). However, she more than makes up for this, shining in one scene in particular where she converses with a French soldier.

But the star of the show is the one, the only, James McAvoy. In the Q&A that followed the screening of the film, director Joe Wright described Robbie as the highest form of a human being, and he is. Raised by a single mother, Robbie worked hard for everything in his life, but with success he is still a brilliantly warm and humble person. Even after he is put in the war to avoid staying in prison for longer, he does not whinge about it, but instead, gets through the day with the hope of seeing Cecelia guiding him through. James McAvoy plays this special individual with compassion and understanding.  He has the accent and physicality of Robbie down to a T, but, more importantly, conveys his goodness, without ever having to resort to histrionics.

McAvoy’s performance is a masterclass in subtle acting. In some pivotal scenes, it is actually his beautiful blue eyes that do the acting more than anything, and they speak more words than Briony’s ostentatious prose ever could.

There is more than a slight similarity between Atonement and The Go-Between. Both tell of love between different classes, and an intruding message carrier between the two. Furthermore, Sarah Greenwood’s sensuous set design (in the first act) and accurate war holes (in the second), along with the sound design, which features buzzing bees, works cleverly on a subconscious level to add to the tension. Indeed, Atonement is a technically and visually stunning film. The hues in the first act are almost overly saturated with richness, and this contrasts starkly to the second act, where cold hospital wards and mucky brown war dugouts fill the screen.

The costumes are all realistic and accurate, though I personally favour the glamorous designs of the first half, which include a mesmerizing green dress that Cecelia wears. The cinematography, which encompasses long takes, tracking shots, lingering pans all attribute to the visual flair of the movie. But the key stylistic element that stood out for me, was the score. The piano theme is elegiac and melancholy, and the cello and violins also add to the sadness of the romance. Also, the use of a typewriter as an instrument, though started oddly, soon becomes infectious and it even forces its way into viewer’s minds, making Robbie’s note (and the consequences) unforgettable.

Joe Wright and Working Title have made a film to be proud of. Amidst some incredible scenes (an extremely erotic library non-reading session between Robbie and Cecelia) as well as the fountain scene are amongst the many that will remain with viewers long after the credits have rolled. The quality and calibre of films that Working Title have turned out recently have been brilliant (Pride & Prejudice, Hot Fuzz, etc) and Atonement ranks up there along with my personal favourites Dead Man Walking and The Hudsucker Proxy.

It is a wonderfully crafted, beautifully lush and immensely moving film that shows, above all, how storytelling can both destroy and heal. By the time the final surprise occurs, you may or may not have decided whether or not Briony has truly atoned for her mistake. But the film takes no sides, gives no easy answers.

Perhaps the book was right, and, “the attempt was all.”



Anonymous said...

Not a bad review. Not a bad review at all. I'm looking forward to this

(decided to type propa today, happy now?)

I bet James McAvoy is 4th because of his "beautiful blue eyes". :p

Anonymous said...

Great review Emma, I really want to see this but have to wait until effing December to. Would you recommend reading the book before watching the film?

Emma said...

Martin - spot on. And his gorgeous freckles.

Anon - you could read it if you like, it's probably my favourite McEwan, but I found it rather tedious when Robbie and Cecelia weren't having sex.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I took a while to reply, I wanted to read the review in detail.

What can I say... if I didn't want to see it before, I definitely do now. James looks delicious in those pictures, P&P was my 2nd favourite film of 2005 and you gave it a swell review!

Kayleigh said...

Excellent review...jealous doesnt begin to describe how envious i am of you!
Glad you liked the film...would you agree with the amount of buzz on AwardsDaily forums?
I really must read the book but i have so much to read i might not get to finish it before i see the sis loves all the James pics!

Anonymous said...

Ohhh. Not only is it a great review but I'm beyond jealous that you saw this already! I have weeks of waiting ahead!

Anonymous said...

Damnit, I have to wait until December to see this! I want it now!

Just a girl said...

Oh wow! This sounds like an amazing movie, and an even better book that I must read before I see the movie! Love your review; very well written, giving just the right amount away while not spoiling any part of the movie.
Just a girl

Sam Brooks said...

Would you call any of the performances in the film Oscar-bait or even Oscar worthy?

Just a girl said...

Hey Emma,
the IB involves 5 compulsory subjects, and then one; english, a LOTE, a humanities (social science), a natural science (bio, physics, chem etc), and level of maths (easy, medium, hard). Your sixth subject can either be an art (theatre, visual or music), or a second science (social or natural). Yeah, it's intense. Plus you study this subject called "Theory of Knowledge" which is as annoying as it sounds, and totally NOT as cool as philiosophy. And THEN there's the extra components of Extended Essay (4,000 word research essay) and CAS - 50 hours (ea.) of Creativity, Action and Service. The best description I've heard of it is "the pressure of uni plus yr 12 work."

3 km may seem like a lot (and hurts a lot!), but back in my younger years (which weren't that long ago!) at Timbertop, this crazy campus at my school in yr 9 in the mountains, we used to run twice a week and hike once a week. At the end of the year we ran a half marathon - 28km. Last year I kind of did the same thing, (minus the hiking) in a term at this campus, but this year I am seriously unfit. Oh well.
Just a girl

Anonymous said...

I'm loving the shots of James, Emma!

Emma said...

Yeah, me too, I quite fancy him you see.

GavC said...

Hey great blog, ta for the comment on mine :)

Anodynous Roxy said...

Emma, the guy who's number 8 on your list...left.

Number 16 left.


Glenn Dunks said...

Eep! I can't wait for this movie. So excited.

toby said...

Stumbled in here via "Just a girl"
Haven't read the book or seen the film but might have a crack at both after your review. Although, I hated The Go-Between, the book, so that's not a good sign; but the film with Julie Christie was awesome!
I am also impressed that you have 3 of my all time fave actresses on this page: Cruz and Hepburn in your banner, and a mention of Bergman.
It was fun, I'll be back!

Blueturnip said...

Hey Emma this is Mel from school guess what loved your review so much I wanted to make my own blog! It's hope you don't think I'm a copycat or anything but was hoping you could give me some pointers on presentation etc. Oh yeah and have to tell you about my results

Catherine said...

I finished the book last night. It's been gathering dust in my house for years and I guessed I may as well read it before the film version comes out.

I can't help feeling cheated. It was written well, that I can't deny, but on the whole I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth. McEwan creates interesting, multi-faceted characters but can't seem to restrain himself getting the last laugh. I don't know, nearly every review I've seen of it has been overwhelmingly positive but I just felt it was manipulative.

Your review is great though! Sorry about my rambling, I am anticipating the movie and I was very interested in what you thought.

James McEvoy is hot.

Emma said...

Well, catherine, I'm not McEwan's biggest fan, and I actually found Atonement one of his stronger books, but the passage where Robbie and Cecelia were reuinited and Briony promised to tell the courts that she was wrong, for that to turn out to have never happened, kind of ticked me off. It wasn't so bad in the film, but reading it first time in the book, I was like, "YOU BITCH!!! They deserve one meeting!!!"

And he is hot! I'm sick of people telling me I have weird taste in men, James is a very ordinary sex God!

Anonymous said...

best review of atonement out there. you go girl.

Anonymous said...

How were you able to watch it. Did you go to Venice?

Emma said...

Anonymous, there were advanced screenings all across the UK on Sunday the 19th. I got invited to go along for free as long as I wrote a review on my blog.

Hannah said...

loved your review, i compared it too a guardian reveiw for my journalism class in australia... you doubled my enthusiasm to see the movie, tho unfortunately it doesn't come out till dec over here :(

Josh L said...

Brilliant review, just stumbled accross your blog and really like it. I reviewed atonement on my blog as well.

Keep up the good blogging.


Ray Wong said...

Wandered here when I was looking for all things Atonement. Love this film. Nice review (will you read mine? :) ) although I think you have an unhealthy dislike of Keira Knightley. ;) But spot on about McAvoy and Ronan -- although I think Redgrave gave a hell of a performance that nailed the film at the end.


Anna Banana said...

Ahhhh, yes; I'm SO glad I found a review that really brings Atonement to justice. Seeing as it is one of my faves (really, I believed it should've won the Oscar. I really do.), I'm glad you shed a postivie light down on it. James McAvoy WAS amazing (and IS a complete sex god), Saoirse Ronan COMPLETELY took my breath away, and as far as I'm concerned, Joe Wright is just a genius. End of discussion.

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Nathan Cornetet said...

I loved this movie. It's one of my favorite movies of all time. Very insightful review as well.

Connor Holloway said...

I'm a huge fan of Ian McEwan. I've read almost all of his books. The movie version of Atonement was pretty good, but I loved the book.

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Juliette said...

Hi Emma

I like the 'Go-Between' (book and movie) so yes this could be for me. Good review and good that you didn't give too much away and spoil! Thanks.

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Sara said...

I love Ian Mcewan - his poetry epecially. Enjoyed your review and agree to keep this post tops!

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Amanda said...

I have a poetry book of Ian's which is at least 25 years old and I still read. Nice post, enjoyed thanks.

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