Doodad Kind of Town


"Atonement"
January 6, 2008, 10:38 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Before I get into the review, allow me to mention that “Doodad Kind of Town” can now be found at the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB). The site is a directory of movie blogs, and it features links to a wide range of diverse and highly entertaining perspectives on film. Be sure to check it out.


I approached “Atonement” with equal measures of apprehension and anticipation.

The apprehension was because I dearly loved the source material, the 2001 novel by Ian McEwan. If you’ve ever really loved a book – and then seen it royally fucked up on screen – I’m sure you can relate to that feeling of dread. (“Bonfire of the Vanities” anyone? “The Hotel New Hampshire”? )

But I was filled with hopeful anticipation at the same time, since the film of “Atonement” was directed by Joe Wright. Wright brought us the brilliant, revisionist adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” just a couple of years back; he dispensed with the usual period-piece over-focus on costumes and set dressing, and maintained the novel’s comic charms, while honing in on its underlying issues of money and social class. I hoped he would work similar magic with McEwan’s great novel.

I don’t think he entirely succeeded.

Not that the film is bad, mind you. “Atonement” is certainly beautiful to look at, ravishingly filmed with meticulous attention to period detail. It’s also quite well-acted by all. Watching it was an absorbing way to pass a couple of hours on a dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon. But, for me, it ultimately lacked the depth – both emotional and intellectual – that the novel delivered.

It starts promisingly enough. In fact, the opening third of the film, set in England in 1935, is by far the best. Here we meet the wealthy Tallis family. Oldest sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) is done with university and languishing on the family estate on a hot, lazy afternoon, along with 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan). Briony, bossy and precocious, has written a high-falutin’ play, “The Trials of Arabella,” which she attempts to press her visiting cousins into performing for the evening’s dinner guests. Cecelia has a tussle over a family heirloom vase with Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family housekeeper. Robbie’s university education was financed by Cecelia’s father, which complicates matters between them. He’s upwardly mobile and cheeky, but indebted to the the Tallis family. Cecelia can’t quite decide if she likes him or despises him, but doesn’t hesitate to strip down to her skivvies in front of him and jump into a fountain to retrieve a broken shard of that contentious vase.

The central personality dynamics of the story are set up beautifully for the rest of the film in these opening scenes. We see right away that Briony, for all her cleverness, lacks the ability to really connect with other people. Ronan (who is remarkable in the role) clearly conveys how Briony’s isolation is compounded by an unshakable (and clearly misguided) belief in her own superiority. She imagines herself far worldlier than she actually is, and that belief will end up costing her dearly. Cecelia and Robbie, on the other hand, have undeniable chemistry; despite their early squabbling, you know they’ll end up locked in an embrace by the end of that day.

They actually end up moving beyond mere embracing, and they’re gettin’ down to serious business in the library, when Briony walks in and catches them. She misinterprets what she witnesses in the library – as well as another unfortunate event of the day – according to her own, seriously misguided lights, leading her to betray Robbie in a rather tragic way.

The second section of the film takes place in 1940, with Robbie off at war, and both Cecelia and Briony working as nurses in London. The sisters don’t communicate – Briony’s act of betrayal has effectively ended their relationship. Robbie is to be evacuated from the beach at Dunkirk, and the scene there is established with a magnificent a 5 1/2 minute tracking shot that takes in everything and everyone – but ultimately seems to belong to another movie entirely. At no other time in “Atonement” is the focus ever off the three characters at the overheated emotional center of the story.

The final coda of the film – in which events of the war sections are illuminated – is abrupt and unsatisfying. The events in the middle section of “Atonement” have not truly been what they seemed, as we discover when Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) – now in her 70s and a successful writer – tells the whole truth about her sister’s and Robbie’s experiences during the war. In the novel, this took place at a family gathering (where the grandchildren performed “The Trials of Arabella” for Briony’s entertainment); the closing section made a clever bookend with the opening family gathering scenes, and Briony’s revelations about the true fates of Robbie and Cecelia had genuine emotional impact.

In the film, Briony spills the beans in a perfunctory television interview. The whole confession takes about 90 seconds, and it isn’t nearly impactful enough to offset the emotional weight of the what precedes it. And Redgrave is almost too good in these final moments; her Briony exudes a warmth and wisdom that’s been nowhere evident in the earlier, cold-eyed incarnations of the character.

“Atonement,” the novel, told a great love story, but its ultimate achievements were in examining the very nature of fiction, and in defining what the performance of penitential acts (such as sacrificing a university education to be a wartime nurse) can and cannot accomplish in the way of atoning for our sins towards others. “Atonement,” the film, gets the love story right. But Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton don’t go nearly as deep as McEwan on the weightier matters at hand.

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hi, Pat. This statement of yours “beautiful to look at, ravishingly filmed with meticulous attention to period detail. It’s also quite well-acted by all” is coming to define more and more movies, both large and small. It seems as though the art of storytelling is losing out.I like your blog a lot. It’s always great to have another high-quality film blog out there. Keep up the great work.PS–And thanks for the shout-out on LAMB.

Comment by Marilyn

Hi Marilyn – thanks for the kind words.I couldn’t agree with you more about how the art of storytelling is lost these days. There are lots of visually stunning movies, quirky movies, movies with weird, ambiguous endings – and they’re all entertaining – but I just wish there were more filmmakers at work who know how to shape a good, satisfying narrative.BTW – really enjoyed your review of “Sweeney Todd;” it’s good to hear the thoughts of someone else who loved the original show.

Comment by Pat




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