January 26, 2008

Atonement (01/26/08)

Lettergrade: C

I must admit that I was not filled with a burning desire to see Atonement, but we pulled the trigger on doing so due to the award-season attention and because it was recommended by several friends. Now that I've seen it, I would give the movie high marks overall, although with the disclaimer that certain aspects of the story and how it unfolds have not entirely sat well with me in the time since the end credits rolled. Nevertheless, it is one of those movies where in spite of whatever problems it may have, it is a fine example of solid writing, acting, and filmmaking craft, and should be admired on that level, if for no other reason.

Based on a popular novel by Ian McEwan, the ads suggest that the movie is standard British costume drama fare, but in truth it is quite different - and more surprising - than that. The key character is Briony: As a young girl she's played by Saoirse Ronan, who just got an Oscar nomination for her work. The precocious thirteen year old witnesses fragmental evidence of older sister Keira Knightley's blossoming love affair with James McAvoy, the son of one of the family servants. A la Three's Company, she greatly misunderstands and misinterprets what she sees, thinking that McAvoy is a sex-obsessed maniac who's been assaulting and hurting her sister uninvited. Briony uses that misperception to later justify testifying against McAvoy for a crime that she's not entirely sure he actually committed.

Four years later, when World War II is in full swing, Briony (now played by Romola Garai) begins to realize the ramifications of what she did. Several lives, including her own, have been dramatically altered from what happened: McAvoy had been sent to prision, but has now been released to the British military and is serving in France. Knightley, estranged from the rest of the family, is a "war sister" in London (kind of like a super-nurse, I gather), and the two correspond frequently, meeting whenever McAvoy is on leave.

Director Joe Wright was also responsible for the remake of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice that was in theaters a few years back, and he stages everything here in fresh, exciting ways that somewhat transcend expectation. The key thing to note is the film's avant-garde sequencing: At a few key points, we see part of an event from one person's point-of-view which can be perceived a certain way. Then, however, the film jumps back and goes through the sequence again, but following different characters, giving what you saw before totally different context. I would have to see the movie a second time to completely figure out the exact logic behind the film's tricky temporality, but even to the slightly perplexed viewer, it is interesting to reveal the pieces of the story the way they did it here.

And now a spoilerish word about the character that Vanessa Redgrave plays toward the end of the picture. Frankly, what she has to say about the preceding scenes and the ongoings of the plot is the main thing that gives me reservations about the movie. I always feel it is risky for a film to tell you that a big chunk of what you just saw didn't happen or wasn't entirely accurate. Movies like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense get away with it because they still work well as thrillers, regardless of whether or not you've been carefully mislead about a key plot point. A drama is different kind of deal in that the satisfaction largely comes from the characters, their interactions, and the choices they make as story moves along.

Redgrave's character reveals that a key exchange late in the film never actually took place, which - like the rest of the movie - raises complex questions about point-of-view and perception. In this case, however, finding out that this particular event did not really happen made me call into question the validity of a good number of other scenes that actually constitute a good portion of the movie.

I'm having trouble expressing why, exactly, this bothers me without being too direct about it, so I will turn, as I have many times in my life, to Ocean's 12. Toward the end of that movie, it is revealed that George Clooney and Brad Pitt did something way back in the first third of the film which ensured that no matter what happened, the outcome would be in their favor. Upon receiving that information, I sat there in the theater feeling remarkably cheated: If everything that happened past the 40 minute mark was totally inconsequential, why the fuck did the movie clock in at 2 hours and 10 minutes? The looks of concern on George and Brad's faces during the quasi-climax were basically there to keep the audience feeling like something risky was happening when in fact the game had been over long before that moment.

Atonement doesn't have this exact problem at all, but the Redgrave revelation suggests that a few key relationships in the movie have even less resolution than they seemed to have before the bombshell dropped. I guess what I'm talking about is the feeling of reaching the end of some great task, only to have the whole thing seem a little incomplete and puzzling in hindsight. That, perhaps, is how I feel deep down about Atonement, which is a shame because the movie has too much going for it in the early scenes to trail off like it does by the end.

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