Friday, December 7, 2007
Saoirse Ronan as young Briony (Focus Features)
A quick succession of events that Briony is too young to fully comprehend, lead her to accuse Robbie of a horrible crime. Briony, fueled by an almost terrifying self-righteousness, lies about something she sees. Although her sister urges her to reconsider what she's said, Briony holds firm to her accusations, not realizing that Cecilia and Robbie are in love and that her lies will irrevocably change the course of their lives.
I don't want to say any more and maybe I have said too much already. Although this film doesn't hinge on any great mystery or twist, it is a film that reveals itself slowly and in subtle satisfying ways. So the less you know the better. Based on Ian McEwan's novel of the same name, the film has been brought to the screen by director Joe Wright and writer Chris Hampton. Both have displayed a flair for literary adaptations: Wright with Pride and Prejudice ; and Hampton with Dangerous Liaisons and The Quiet American . They both have managed to find ways to respect the original text while still delivering something cinematic.
James McAvoy as Robbie (Focus Features)
In a way, Atonement initially positions us from Briony's perspective. We see what she sees and doesn't understand what's going on between Cecilia and Robbie. Not only is it something beyond her maturity but it's also something that goes against her nature. She is a somber, serious child who says, love is all good but you have to be sensible. The problem is that love is not sensible, it is volatile and unpredictable.
But then Wright and Hampton in essence rewind the film and playback scenes again so that we can see things from different perspectives. This allows us to re-evaluate things in a way that others in the film cannot. The filmmakers use this device repeatedly and to different effects throughout the film. They also use the sound of someone typing as an element of the sound designits somewhere between being part of the music and being a sound effect. The typing in a couple scenes is almost like a military beat that Briony marches to; it sounds firm and final as if she is writing out events and they must be played as she has written them down. At times the recurring typing effect seemed annoying and even out of place. But as the story progresses it makes more and more sense, and it pays off superbly at the end when Vanessa Redgrave appears as the elder Briony who has finally published this story.
Redgrave's author provides an interesting contrast to Amir, the author that appears in The Kite Runner. In both films we meet Briony and Amir as children who tell lies that cause harm to others. In Atonement , we truly feel the process by which Briony comes to terms with those lies and ultimately takes responsibility for them. We hate her when she tells those lies but we don't hate her at the end. The Kite Runner is also about atonement. I haven't read the book so I don't know if Amir's character plays out differently on the page than on the screen, but on screen Amir doesn't own up to his lies in as satisfying a manner as Briony yet the film wants us to see him as fully redeemed. Briony takes full responsibility for her lie, lets the world know that she understands the harm it has caused and is sincere in apologizing for it. Amir, on the other hand, is infuriating in the way that he never makes a similar kind of confession. The difference between the two is the difference between someone who reveals full understanding of her actions and someone who just feels obligated to do something to alleviate his own guilt. The two films, arriving so close together, prove interesting companion pieces on similar themes. I'm not sure if the differences between the characters stems from their gender or from the differences in the filmmakers making the films.
Vanessa Redgrave as the older Briony (Focus Features)
And since I have mentioned Redgrave, I would just like to point out how her brief appearance at the end typifies the high caliber of acting that fuels Atonement . Her performance is subtle and honest. So nakedly honest in fact that it seems to challenge the viewer. If you had to reduce the film down to just her scenes, it would still be a powerful movie. Although her Briony is very different from the 13-year-old girl we met at the beginning of the film, we can completely see how the character has evolved. Ronan, as the young Briony, also deserves praise for laying the foundation of Briony's character--although at times you feel like you want to slap her for her arrogance. As the lovers, Knightley and McAvoy are well cast. They are not allowed much time together on screen but they establish the romantic connection with enough force early on to color the entire film. This is the second time that Knightley has collaborated with Wright. She played Austen's heroine in his Pride and Prejudice . They work well together, and Wright at least is willing to push her as an actress rather than treat her like a prop in franchise.
The story follows Robbie into war and tries to convey the horrors he encounters. Wright conceives an impressive tracking shot through the vast number of troops awaiting their return to England. But these epic scenes prove less emotionally compelling than the more intimate scenes of Briony, as a young nurse, dealing with individual soldiers.
Atonement (rated R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality) has a smart, literary tone. It feels like it comes from a novel but in a good way because it allows us to appreciate the craft of a carefully structured narrative that pays off in unexpected ways. This is a film for adults not because of its content but rather because of the way it respects the audience's intelligence.
Companion viewing: Pride and Prejudice (2005), The Quiet American, The Kite Runner, The Comfort of Strangers (novel by Ian McEwan)