I know it’s hard to believe, but there are still two more Best Picture nominees to pour over here at moviegasm, and less than a week before the awards. I’ll try and get a Juno review up before then, but in the meantime we have Joe Wright’s strangely affecting Atonement to talk about.
This isn’t my pick for Best Picture. I would even say that I had major problems with parts of it. But something happened in the last few moments of the film that really affected me and changed my view of the whole movie.It’s really kind of amazing what director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton have done with Ian McEwan’s novel. I carry certain assumptions into the theatre when I go to see a critically-hailed period epic about forbidden love and war and guilt, and… I mean, it’s called Atonement, for Pete’s sake. And for much of the time, this movie hit all the pitfalls and clichÃ©s that I expected. The movie opens by introducing a wealthy English family and focusing on the two daughters: the elder Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and her younger sister, Briony (an engagingly precocious Saoirse Ronan). We also meet Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s groundskeeper, who seems destined to confess his love to Cecilia (that very day, no less). But even though Cecilia reciprocates his passion, a stunning series of coincidences and misunderstandings conspire to keep them apart. Four years later, we find Robbie fighting in WWII, Cecilia working as a nurse in London while awaiting Robbie’s return, and an older Briony trying desperately to atone (get it?) for her part in all the shenanigans that fateful night.
This all sounds very straight forward and English Patienty, but Wright and Hampton have some interesting ways of keeping this fresh and moving, and distracting us from the increasingly unlikely series of events. For instance, he shows us an encounter between Cecilia and Robbie by a fountain first from Briony’s thirteen-year-old point of view, watching them through a window, but then goes back and shows us the scene again as it happened between Robbie and Cecilia. One of the themes of the film is how a child sees events in the world and how different that perception frequently is from reality.
And while the structure is an effective method of illuminating that theme, I found all the chronological bouncing around rather annoying. It jumps back a few moments, forward a few moments, then skips ahead four years, back to four years earlier, and intercuts it all with dream sequences and cutaways… it all felt like window dressing on a dramatically unsatisfying story. All that was missing were some De Palma-esque split screen sequences. And I felt essentially the same way about a beautifully orchestrated but very-self conscious single-take shot of Robbie arriving at a beach in France to find thousands of other soldiers waiting for boats to take them home (another notorious De Palma trick, perhaps best executed in Snake Eyes). It’s one of the moments that directors expect to wow critics and attentive audiences, but I found myself pulled out of the film. In fact, the scale of the entire war sequence felt very out of place next to the earlier drawing room drama, and that shot in particular just further reinforced how much more brilliant Alfonso Cuaron and DP Emmanuel Lubeski’s single-take shots were in Children of Men.
But what I realize now is that all the jumping around, and even the self-conscious attempts at visual panache, were Wright and Hampton laying the groundwork for a dramatic flash forward that ties everything together and makes the whole film work better than I ever believed it would. I won’t describe it as a ‘twist’ ending; M. Night Shyamalan has given that phrase too much baggage. But it changed my perspective on the story that preceded it, and made it all believable, at least in an emotional sense.
There are some other pleasures to be found along the way. Foremost among them, to me, is Keira Knightley. Let me tell you something: Gore Verbinski could learn a thing or two about how to shoot this woman from Joe Wright. He does not do her justice in those Pirates movies. Wright films her like Wong Kar Wai would, giving us quick cuts, pieces of her, shadowing her in smoky mirrors or against the blinding glare of the sun off the ocean. It’s as though she were too beautiful to behold in a single shot. Knightley’s fine in the film, though not as good as she was in Pride and Prejudice (her first collaboration with Wright). McAvoy is similarly solid, if not spectacular, although he has one moment late in the film where he boils over so convincingly with rage that I was frightened for the other actor in the scene. It’s a short scene, but one of the highlights of the film.
I’m pleasantly surprised that Saoirse Ronan got the Supporting Actress nod as young Briony. Her role is maybe the most difficult in the film, and she does an amazing job with it. Romola Garai plays Briony at eighteen, and nails one of the most moving scenes in the film, although it took me awhile to buy into her performance. And Vanessa Redgrave could very easily have taken Saoirse’s nomination for a much smaller, though incredibly powerful cameo late in the film.
Generally speaking, this is the kind of film the Academy gravitates to, and I think it’s a testament to what strong films No Country and TWBB are that it isn’t the frontrunner for Best Picture. But it’s a familiar story told in an unusual way, and shows promise from just about everyone involved. I’ll be curious to see what Joe Wright does with his next movie, called The Soloist; I think something contemporary might suit him better than period pieces. Knightley and McAvoy are clearly stars on the rise, and I think Knightley in particular will shine post-Pirates (I’m especially looking forward to The Edge of Love, which pairs her with Cillian Murphy and Sienna Miller).
I don’t know if Atonement will carry home any statues come Sunday, but everyone involved combined to make it better than it should have been and elevated it to a level that provided something genuine for me, some sort of emotional truth that doesn’t lend itself to easy articulation. To me, that might be the definition of a work of art, and that’s always worth recognizing.