Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Capsule Review: Atonement

Movie: Atonement
Director/Studio: Joe Wright / Focus Features
10 Word Review: Far smarter than the sweeping romantic epic you're probably expecting.

Best Thing About It: In a dead heat, the absolutely spectacular visuals (Seamus McGarvey's camera is so deceptive and tricky, it's astounding) get edged out by the strength of the layered storytelling. Credit goes to novelist Ian McEwan and adapter Christopher Hampton for that. It's funny, because the backlash against the film (something that began well before most of the backlashers even saw the movie) centers on the fact that it's so predictable for the presumptive Oscar front-runner to be this grand romantic epic in the vein of The English Patient. The thing is, if you look at Atonement even a little closely, you realize it's really not that, at all. The layers-upon-layers of storytelling and deception and self-deluded characters and guilt-ridden fantasies creates a rich and completely satisfying story that you get to keep unraveling even after you've left the theater. Seriously, this is so much more than your average costume drama.

Worst Thing About It: There's at least one scene where a visual metaphor is rendered so inelegantly that you can't help but lose a smidge of respect for the filmmakers. We get it: she's trying to wash the blood off her hands! Stop lingering on the close-up so long that we can describe her cuticles from memory!

Best Performance: Tough call: everybody's good, and I especially want to give props to Romola Garai, who I've liked for a long time and who was my favorite of the three actresses who played Briony (Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave come to play as well), but James McAvoy was the best of the bunch. Every film he makes, he gets better and more assured; here, the story leaves so much of his character up to him to create, and he does, through small gestures and a handful of tough emotional moments. Every time you think the story is going to float away with the pretty faces sighing longingly at each other, he cuts through the gauze with a shot of raw emotion and you're back on the ground.

Oscar Prospects: After leading the pack in Golden Globe nominations, I'd say it's still among the front-runners, if not the film to beat. The backlash remains strong, however, but for now it's a contender for all the big awards, McAvoy, Ronan, Kiera Knightley, Dario Marianelli's score, and one would hope the cinematography, costumes, and art direction. It'll deserve them all.

Grade: A


JA said...

Damn you Joe. Now I have to see it, don't i? I swear, I'm holding you responsible for whatever reaction I have. If I no likey, I'm a comin for you!

Mike B. said...

Here's my question (written vaguely so as not to be spoilery):

Doesn't the ending undercut the complexity? And doesn't the ending sort of mean that there isn't self-delusion?

I thought it was a visually stunning movie, which helped since I could only understand every third word Kiera Knightley said (bless her heart, she has the worst diction). But the story itself is not a favorite of mine, specifically for my two questions asked above.

Joe R. said...

Jason: I'm standing by it -- it's a really great film.

Mike: I'll just delve into SPOILERS from here on out, so anyone who doesn't want to hear about stuff should stop reading.......

For me, the ending is what makes it so incredibly complex. I think a lot of times the "it was all a story/dream/fantasy" endings do kind of invalidate everything we've seen, but with Atonement it's the opposite. Looking back at the movie through the prism of Briony's guilt and attempts (however futile) to "make it right" cause you to re-examine almost every aspect to the film. Without the ending, it's just an unsatisfying romance. I like thinking back to how much of James and Kiera's romance exists only in Briony's head, and only because she's so terribly weighed down with guilt. That's why I think there certainly IS quite a bit of self-delusion. How much of the story we see is just Briony convincing herself that things would happen a certain way? Or that things DID happen a certain way? Who's to say that James pinning Kiera up against that bookcase wasn't just some upstairs/downstairs tryst and not the beginning of an epic romance? Does Briony only see it as such because of her guilt? There's a lot going on -- whatever that ending is, it's no copout.

Mike said...

Thanks for the reply -- "I feel it" as the hip kids on "The Wire" say. Of course, they're also selling drugs. Also, it might be "I feel you."


SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER (for those who want to remain free):

It hadn't occurred to me that everything is Briony's reimaginings. And then I read your answer and I started thinking, "Wait -- maybe the filmmaker wasn't simply helpfully correcting the viewer after a scene from Briony's point of view. Maybe both are Briony's point of view. The first run-through is how she experienced it as a 13-year-old. The second is her Vanessa-Redgrave-rectification."

It still feels a little...off? Maybe? Because if that's the case it's still only a psychological portrayal of Briony. I say "still" as if it's a bad thing. Possibly it isn't. But both the book and the movie left me feeling, at the end, like it had been drawn out a little too long.

The movie also suffers a little for me in comparison with A Very Long Engagement, which I found completely captivating. Of couse, these are two different movies, trying for two different things. So my comparison isn't necessarily fair.

Emma said...

It is indeed terrific, and James' performance was beautiful.