Friday, December 07, 2007

"Atonement" -- * * *

Every year there seems to be one movie that is heralded as an Oscar-worthy masterpiece by all the rabble-rousers prior to release, and most just accept it as so, regardless of whether it's worthy of the declaration. Joe Wright's extremely pretty, well-shot "Atonement" is that movie this year. It is most definitely not a masterpiece, though it is certainly worth seeing. It's a solid, neat, emotionally compelling piece of work, but not without its flaws. I try my best to go into every movie cold, but this is a situation where the supposed merit and caliber pitched up expectations to the extreme, and after raves, I was let down by how little there was to it. On a second viewing, I had a better idea of what to expect, but I would still draw the line at anything beyond "good." It does however deserve praise for giving yet another acting job to the actor with my favorite name in the movie business, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Opening with the sounds of a typewriter keyboard being punched, "Atonement," like "The Kite Runner" is divided into three sections, with the first getting the most screen time, by far. At the risk of revealing too much, I'll just post the official synopsis: "In 1935, 13-year-old fledgling writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) and her family live a life of wealth and privilege in their enormous mansion. On the warmest day of the year, the country estate takes on an unsettling hothouse atmosphere, stoking Briony's vivid imagination. Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the educated son of the family's housekeeper, carries a torch for Briony’s headstrong older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Cecilia, he hopes, has comparable feelings; all it will take is one spark for this relationship to combust. When it does, Briony – who has a crush on Robbie – is compelled to interfere, going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. Cecilia and Robbie declare their love for each other, but he is arrested – and with Briony bearing false witness, the course of three lives is changed forever. Briony continues to seek forgiveness for her childhood misdeed."

Like "Brokeback Mountain" (the two movies are oddly similar in more than a few ways), this isn't really a love story, but the tale of one person's tortured soul, and in that respect, the film is effective and never less than compelling. But, as the complex-yet-narrowly-focused story of one woman, the story doesn't seem to merit the "importance" or scope accorded to it here. Wright has made every effort to make this feel like a massive, epic film and it just seems to drown this intimate story with bombastic "prestige" when just the story alone should have been enough. While "Brokeback" took place over numerous decades, it had a firm grasp on its scope and focus, and resulted in an intimacy that made its emotionally draining nature an extended and profound gut-punch. I haven't read McEwan's novel, but every person I've spoken to who has talks about how beautifully written and emotionally devastating it is. You can absolutely see that within the film, but it doesn't make nearly the impact it should. When the lights came up, I was certainly moved, but I should have been left completely shaken and unable to get out of my seat (a feeling I did have at the end of "There Will Be Blood," but for entirely different reasons).

Wright's misguided approach is best personified by his much-discussed tracking shot during the post-battle Dunkirk sequence. Lasting almost exactly five minutes, this shot is tremendously impressive on a technical level, but unlike similar shots in "Children of Men," it's distracting, show-offy and seems bereft of any sort of dramatic purpose. Rather than giving us any insight into Robbie, or the scope of his experience, it seems above all a case of "Lookie what I can do!" Wright fares much better with other visual composition decisions, such as the way he cleverly depicts certain sequences "Rashomon"-style from more than one perspective, and one sequence in particular that perfectly juxtaposes two shots of Cecilia diving into a pool right as Robbie emerges from under the water of his bathtub.

Despite him being neither the biggest name in the cast, nor the main character, this is undoubtedly James McAvoy's movie. More than just adding his matinee-idol looks to an old-fashioned romantic tale, he delivers a performance of such power and complexity as Robbie. He has to play so many different states in this film, from his love-struck idealist at the outset to the jaded soldier with heartbreak lurking beneath his blue eyes, he's really wonderful. I'm definitely in support of this guy becoming a movie story, and Robbie is the best showcase he's had for his talents thus far.

I can acknowledge/understand that Knightley is a very pretty (if grotesquely skinny) girl, but I really can't envision anyone finding anything special about this performance. Like she's wont to do, she mostly just stares ahead with a fixed look on her face devoid of any emotion or feeling. While granted, that's part of who Cecilia is, I felt literally nothing from this performance and even in her "emotional" moments (including her four different scenes of uttering "Come back to me" to Robbie), she just radiates blandness. If she gets nominated for this performance, it'll be purely due to her getting swept along with the fervor. I don't mean to be cruel, but it'd be a crime if this wax mannequin earned a second Oscar nomination.

The three actresses playing Briony (Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) are all excellent in different ways. In her first major part, leading up to her starring role in "The Lovely Bones" (a.k.a.: Ms. Knightley's nickname), Ronan gets the most screen time of the three and perfectly embodies spoiled petulance and exudes qualities that are simultaneously beyond-her-years and childish. Garai is a little more one-note, playing basically just completely guilt-ridden (a la Lady MacBeth, she metaphorically and repeatedly washes her hands), but she completely holds her own when sharing the screen with the two leads and her haunted gaze has a cumulative effect on you. Like her sister Lynn in "Kinsey," Redgrave shows up at the very end for a one-scene knockout that single-handedly ups the movie's game, but I won't dare reveal the nature of it.

Like I said, I was affected by "Atonement," but even though this is love and tragedy on a much larger scale, I was significantly more impacted by "Once." That may just be me-- there were loud, audible sobs at my screening-- but there it is. On the other end of things, "Atonement" may in fact be the prettiest movie of the year, with glorious costumes, sets and cinematography. Though, as stated above, I question some of Wright's decisions, he knows how to frame a shot and the movie is always glorious to look at. Also, Dario Marianelli's score is truly beautiful. Incorporating the sounds of a typewriter's keystrokes, the score is alternately illustrative, mysterious, repetitive and evolving, and worthy of any and all accolades coming its way.

Like a lesser "English Patient," "Atonement" could conceivably have enough of a hold on people to win the Oscar for Best Picture, however undeserving. I'm sorry to be so hard on a movie I most emphatically did like, but thus are the risks that come with the territory when touting your film as the next massive thing. I definitely recommend "Atonement;" it's generally splendidly crafted, and so much about it works that it really should be seen. But it's not great.

"Atonement" opens today in selected cities (32 theaters total), 100+ theaters on December 14th, 300 theaters on December 21st, and nationwide on January 4th.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Picture, Best Director (Joe Wright), Best Actor (James McAvoy), Best Supporting Actress (Vanessa Redgrave), Best Supporting Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Editing all seem like strong strong likelihoods.
Best Actress (Keira Knightley) and Best Supporting Actress (Romola Garai) are also possible if the Academy absolutely shits themselves over the film.


Blogger Michael said...

The anorexia stab isn't really appropriate. People in emaciated bodies should not (have the energy to) throw stones...

4:48 PM  

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