January 7, 2008

Movie Review: Atonement

I went into Atonement not quite sure what to expect from the story. I knew it was based off a novel, that it was depressing, that it was a romance set at the dawn of WWII, and that a tragic misunderstanding set off the central tragedy. Now, I am sure that is more than some and considerably less than others. However, those are all story points, as far as the film was concerned, I knew that Keira Knightley and James McAvoy play the two leads but that was about it. Well, that and the fact that it has been getting some solid reviews across the board. I went in hoping to be enveloped in a tragic romance that left me walking out of the theater as if I had gone ten rounds with the heavyweight champion. Strange thing to hope for, right? After seeing One Missed Call earlier in the day, I was in need of something cleansing and this would seem to fir the bill. What I got was a film that delivered the goods, but not quite to the level that I had hoped. Yes, it is most definitely a good film with a lot of talent involved, but be aware that it may not hit you the same as it has the masses, as seems to be the case with me.

Recently, I wrote about how I did not feel that a story, if it was well written, did not need to make any special connection with an audience. It was in reference to a film that I really liked but did not feel any connection to or need to like the characters. It did not take long for a film to come along and throw a wrinkle into that line of thinking. Atonement is definitely a story that needs to connect with its audience. It sets to play with ones emotions, drawing you into the lives of these tragic lovers and the events that conspire to keep them apart.

Sadly, the film does not completely connect with me. I felt as if I was being kept at arms length, never given the "in" needed to make me truly care about the characters. If I had been grabbed by this tale of love I would have liked it much more, obviously. Now, while I was not touched by the romance, there was a lot to like, more than I would have expected from a film of this sort. This will teach me to go in with any preconceptions!

This is the story of Cecelia Tallis (Knightley) and Robbie Turner (McAvoy). She is of the upper crust, he is the son of the housekeeper. Despite their differing classes, they are both intelligent, attractive, and in love with each other, although it does take some time for them to realize it (the way that can only happen in novels and films). However, there is a third piece of this puzzle, and it comes in the form of Cecelia's younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan). She spies the two of them outside her window and misinterprets what she sees. You see, Briony has a crush on Robbie, and seeing him with her sister plants the seeds of contempt.

No sooner have the seeds been planted that they go into full bloom. Briony accuses Robbie of a crime of which he did not commit. This act of spite forever sets the life paths of all three of them, a downward spiral which will never allow them to see happiness.

It is a tragic story, and as the next few years pass, Robbie finds himself shipped off to war as WWII breaks out, and Cecelia, well, I am not quite sure what she is doing, although one thing is certain: she has never forgiven her sister for what she did.

Now, while I did not connect emotionally in these early stages, the technique employed by director Joe Wright stepped in and played a substantial role in drawing me in. I am sure that the structure is borrowed from the novel, but the way Wright uses the replaying of scenes from different perspectives works very well. I liked how it wrapped around, slowly revealing the true meaning of certain scenes. That combined with the interesting choices of angles, camera moves, and editing reveals a director with a vision, and not just someone getting his coverage. This carries through the entire film, highlighted by a 4-5 minute unbroken take following Robbie through Dunkirk, where the British were staging their withdrawal. Also of interest is the use of music, while I found it to be awfully repetitive, I loved it when the sounds of the typewriter were used in combination with the piano-laden score creates a unique sound that adds another dimension to the film.

Remember how I said I did not connect emotionally? Let me adjust that just a little but. It is true that for the first two thirds of the film I did not find any investment in Cecelia and Robbie's romance, I found myself moved in the final segment. The final sequence features Vanessa Redgrave playing the older version of Briony, a novelist on the verge of retirement. She is being interviewd (by director Anthony Minghella) about her final novel. I will not say what happened here, but the tragedy that had been set in motion so many years prior came crashing home for me. It is a genuinely moving sequence and the most emotionally charged part of the entire film.

There is one other piece that I would like to touch on before wrapping this up. It is the use of the written word. The written word is romanticized early in the film, shown by Briony's writing of a play in honor of a brother's return from war. The use of written words also shows how important they can be and the effect they can have when they are misinterpreted. I found it to be quite special, this emphasis on written words. It demonstrates the great care that must be taken when putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Bottomline. This was a good film, one with high technical marks, but the failure to engage my emotions for a longer portion of this romance is holding it back from being truly great. It is definitely worth making the effort to see and I am interested in seeing what Joe Wright has up his sleeve next.



Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I agree with you that the film doesn't seem to connect with the viewer. I've read tons of comments on the IMDB board for Atonement expounding on the unrealized romance and how sad it was, etc,etc.

Like you, it took me to the end with a much older Briony to connect to the story. I think more tragic than anything was the grief that Briony had to live with because Robbie/Cecilia couldn't forgive her.

Anonymous said...

Atonement was a decent flick; it looked and felt a lot like Pride and Prejudice... come to think of it, both movies have the same director, leading lady, both are based on books and both take place in England

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