Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Where the Truth Lies


By Odienator
After finishing the novel Atonement, Grace Slick invaded my brain: "When the truth is found to be lies," she sang. She was followed by Nelson from The Simpsons, whose "Haaaaaa-hah!" might not have been what Ian McEwan had in mind when he wrote his "big middle finger to happily ever after" novel, but it felt appropriate. I had just been played by the author and the tool of his betrayal, Briony Tallis.
Briony exists in the novel as a precocious 13-year-old girl with wrong-headed ideas about sex and romance, a nurse drowning her sins in the blood of the World War II wounded, and an old lady dying of vascular dementia pulling the rug out from under the reader. I was reminded of my aunt's retelling of The Wizard of Oz when I was a kid. After Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy how she can get home, Dorothy replied "you mean I went through all this shit for nothing?! I could have gone home three hours ago?!!"

Unlike Glinda, McEwan does tip his hand to the outcome of his novel, so that when it arrives, it's less of a shock than a confirmation of the old Carleton Young line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. McEwan gives us both legend and fact as a means of attrition for Briony, but my sneaky suspicion is he did so to ensure we would hate her forever.

Atonement, as written, is quite unfilmable. Its construction is contingent on literary bearings, not cinematic ones. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton take a very good, successful crack at reproducing the novel's cadences in the film version of Atonement, though he treats large portions of his film in a more theatrical manner than one might expect if one hasn't read the book. There were moments when the camera and the dialogue evoked the need for Dennis Potter; some shots and sequences cry out for a lip-synching number by the miserable characters who populate the frame.

As in the novel, Briony appears to us in three guises, first as the 13-year old (Saoirse Ronan), whose immature ideas about love spawn a play she hopes to put on for her much older brother Leon's visit. While looking out the window, she sees her older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) in a sinister-looking altercation with the housekeeper's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). He seems to force her to strip to her skivvies and jump into the fountain. Cecelia storms away angry, her undergarments stuck to her body. Robbie looks at her the way one would look at Keira Knightley in the 1935 equivalent of a wet t-shirt contest. Briony notices Robbie's look and comes to her own conclusion. Wright rewinds this scene, and a few others, so that we can see where the truth lies, toying with the notion of perception in as best a fashion as he can without McEwan's written words funneling through his readers' brains.

Later, Robbie asks Briony to deliver a raunchy letter to Cecelia, which Briony reads before concluding that Robbie is a "sex maniac." Barely understanding the term, Briony is convinced that her sister is in danger and confides in her 15-year old cousin Lola. Lola has her own problems: her parents are divorcing and her younger twin brothers are a bunch of brats. She's also just realizing her name is probably short for Lolita, and her flirtation with the much older Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch) is telegraphed as a disaster waiting to happen.

Cecelia receives the letter and is intrigued by Robbie's use of "see-you-next-Tuesday." Meanwhile, brother Leon invites Robbie to dinner, much to both his sisters' and Robbie's chagrin. Through the kindness of her dad, Robbie joined Cecilia at Cambridge for his degree. They kept away from each other (the whole Upstairs, Downstairs thing), but upon their reuniting at the house, the sparks flew, leading to the raunchy letter Robbie accidentally gives to Briony to deliver. The PG-13 rated version intended for Cecelia remained in his room, which is where Robbie would rather be than embarrassed in Cecelia's company.

Robbie keeps his appointment with his benefactor's family, which leads to a charged erotic encounter with Cecelia against a bookcase. Briony is, as usual, in the wrong place at the wrong time and, to paraphrase Cold Comfort Farm, she sees something nahsty in the library. Robbie's sex maniac status is confirmed by Briony's own eyes, the same eyes she will use to condemn Robbie a little later, when she finds Lola being sexually assaulted in the woods.

As in the novel, Robbie is sent away to prison, and then to Dunkirk during World War II. Here we meet the second of our three Briony's (Romola Garai). Feeling guilty for her sin against the innocent Robbie, and currently estranged from Cecelia, Briony tends to wounded Allied soldiers. She washes the blood from her hands, scrubbing violently like Lady MacBeth, and immersing herself in the worst of the carnage as a means of baptism by fire.

It is in this section that Wright tips his hand, seemingly as homage to McEwan doing the same (though with a different device) in the novel. Wright presents an astonishingly long unbroken shot of Robbie Turner on the beach at Dunkirk, a sequence that is as brilliant as it is out of place. Some have complained that it took them out of the movie, but by film's end, I'm surprised they don't realize it was intentionally done. McEwan's writing in this section of the novel is equally ostentatious, and I wondered if he were doing this to draw my attention to the difference in style. He gives a much bigger clue later in the novel, which Hampton's script conveniently leaves out.

Also in this section of the film are several passages that sound a little too Harlequin Romance Novel to belong in this movie. Robbie and Cecelia reunite for a night and confront Briony when she comes to visit her sister. Again, by film's end, the stilted dialogue makes sense.

The last act of the book is the controversial revelation, which, as aforementioned, would be impossible to translate properly to the screen. Wright and Hampton attempt it, and here I must tread lightly, by casting Vanessa Redgrave as our third Briony. Wearing the same hairstyle she has had for 60 years — it looks like a straight man did her hair — the established author she has become appears on TV to discuss her new book. "It's my last book," she says, "because I'm dying." She then launches into a speech that reminded me why I love it so much more when Redgrave appears onscreen for an extended cameo than any time she's been the star of a film. She nails the complexity of her words, asking for a forgiveness neither the film nor the audience wants to give her.

In his piece over at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz disagrees with my assessment of this section of the film, and he is not alone. I am in the minority on my opinion, but I can't think of anything more despicable for Briony to do besides go on TV and use someone else's tragedy as an avenue to a forgiveness she can never attain. How you interpret this scene is, like the novel's version of it, based on your perception of Briony and the means by which she sacrifices your goodwill to save her soul. Is her definition of happiness an acceptable one, or has she not learned anything since she was 13? I find it telling that she has the same hairstyle in the first scene as in the last; it's as if she's learned nothing about herself or her misdeeds.

Keira Knightley fans will have much to rejoice about, though they may be surprised at how little she is in this film. She gives a fine performance and does for that green dress what Monroe did for the MTA, but she is at best a supporting performance. McAvoy, who is top billed, is onscreen longer, cementing his heartthrob status and showing he can do more than be intimidated by Forest Whitaker or molested by CGI in Narnia.

As the three Brionys, Ronan, Garai and Redgrave give performances that flow into each other. I bought into the notion they were the same character. Ronan is onscreen the longest, and has the most to do. She manages to make Briony hateful but at some points an object to be pitied. Redgrave makes her pathetic, and Garai makes her penitent, though we see things differently by the end.

Jimmy Ruffin once sang that "Happiness is just an illusion." A good love story doesn't always end with the happily ever after, though it's human nature to want one. I wouldn't be giving too much away by saying that Robbie and Cecelia do live happily ever after, but there's a reason this paragraph begins with the quote it does.

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Great piece, Odie - I'm sorry that my wacky schedule prevents me from writing an extended reaction of my own - but here are some thoughts on Atonal - sorry, Atonement.

In a nutshell, I think the film is just too pretty to pack much of a punch. Consider the tracking shot on the beach - it's meant to evoke the ravages of war as some kind of grisly carnival of horror, but instead, you wind up marvelling at the camerawork and Wright's skills of visual composition; it's a bravura feat of showmanship which is gorgeous to look at, but without any kind of emotional resonance beyond that. Simlarly, Wright's camera lingers so lovingly on his actors that the entire WWII section feels a bit like "Ken and Barbie Go to War."

I think there's a big disconnect in terms of what we're told is going through Briony's feverish little brain, and what we actually see. We're supposed to believe that Briony doesn't quite understand what she sees, or why she reacts to it in the way that she does - the implication is that she's so confused and overwrought that she truly believes she actually HAS witnessed Robbie raping Lola. The way Saoirse Ronan plays young Briony, I didn't buy that for a second - she's about as guileless as Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed. Her deeds seem less like a product of confusion than a deliberate act of vengeance - it's hard to buy into Briony's later assertion (voiced in a letter to Cecilia) that she's "only now beginning to understand what she did and what it meant," when we've just watched an hour's worth of Baby Briony carrying on like the prize pupil at The Miss Bette Davis School for Young Ladies. I think Ronan is good, even though she has been overpraised - but Knightley and McAvoy (she of the attenuated limbs and he of the Scottish hottie-ness) are really just there to be gazed upon.

But the cinematography, art direction, costume design - gorgeous. The pictures speak louder than words in Atonement - for a literary adaptation, is that such a good thing?
I think there's a big disconnect in terms of what we're told is going through Briony's feverish little brain, and what we actually see.

Exactly. I think that's intentional, especially considering what we learn at film's end. I never bought Briony's innocent act one minute either. She was a conniving little bitch as a kid, and a delusional one as an old lady. So the narration you cite is from an unreliable narrator. Ian McEwen mentions a few times that Briony had opportunities to clean up her mess, but she didn't. It's clear she's the Valedictorian of the Miss Bette Davis School for Young Ladies.

As for the film looking gorgeous, you are absolutely right. Like in Pride and Prejudice, Wright has a showman's eye, turning something that could be static and boring into something alive, even if its life draws attention to itself. That green dress is almost another character in the film.

I disagree with you that Knightley and McAvoy are merely eye candy (though they are certainly that). I felt the chemistry between them, and I found their roles to be well done.

The pictures speak louder than words in Atonement - for a literary adaptation, is that such a good thing?

Yes, because this is a movie, not the book.
As for the film looking gorgeous, you are absolutely right. Like in Pride and Prejudice, Wright has a showman's eye, turning something that could be static and boring into something alive, even if its life draws attention to itself.

For me, the visual showmanship served as more of a distraction - beauty for its own sake, existing without a sense of dramatic neccessity, distances us from the actual content of a scene as opposed to drawing us in. Consider another, less-heralded tracking shot about midway through the film - the one which introduces Romola Garai as the twenty-something incarnation of Briony. The camera feasts on rows of nimble-footed nurses in starchy uniforms marching (nay, gliding) in unison, trailing them through winding corridors in a swooping motion so as to evoke a flock of birds in flight....I half expected them to start turning pirouettes on lily pads by the time they reached the amputee ward. I like to look at beautiful things (paging James McAvoy), and I can certainly understand the impulse of a director with a flair for visual composition to flaunt the talent he has, but at a certain point, self-indulgence crosses over into the realm of masturbation (again, paging James McAvoy...)
For me, the visual showmanship served as more of a distraction - beauty for its own sake

(Spoilers!) I wasn't distracted by the visuals so much as I was distracted by the starchy dialogue in the section you cite. Still, we must remember that Briony is making this all up. So yes, it's theatrical. Yes, there are gliding nurses and winding corridors. Briony is a drama queen, and a florid one at that.

I sort of figured out that the truth was found in the grittier passages of the movie. Perhaps grittier is a bad word, as the entire film is gorgeous. For example, I think the scene with the soldier with the gory head wound really happened, but not much else in this part of the film happened the way we saw it.

I can certainly understand the impulse of a director with a flair for visual composition to flaunt the talent he has, but at a certain point, self-indulgence crosses over into the realm of masturbation

Paging nimble footed nurses in starchy uniforms gliding and pirouetting on lily pads! (If you thought I'd say "paging Keira Knightley," I'd rather fantasize about cooking her dinner and forcing her to eat.)

Some of the sequences here feel as if they're going to burst into musical numbers. For me it worked. Now, if you want to see a really bad attempt at merging an ostentatiously visual love story with a war movie, rent Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
I'd rather fantasize about cooking her dinner and forcing her to eat.

This brings up an interesting issue. Miss Keira complains incessantly about the extent to which people focus on her weight. To which I say, Honey, if you don't want people to talk about your weight, don't allow yourself to be filmed in a bathing suit. The cheeckbones are Pfeiffer-fierce, and the jaw is the kind you could crack a cocoanut on (in a way that works for her), but frankly, I've seen better figures on pre-adolescent boys. Not that I spend my time scoping out the figures of pre-adolescent boys. I hope that's understood. Okay. Er. I'm just going to slip away quietly now.
Great review, Odie. It goes down as smoothly as the movie itself went for me. I never read the book and know little about the author, so maybe that's why I was able to just drink in the director's elegant, old-fashioned storytelling. This movie glides and bobs and weaves the way that English Patient film only thought it did. Wright's approach to scene-making is rhythmic and mathematical. It's clear that he took vivid literary passages and translated them into physical gestures/details. The chocolate bar, the shards of that family heirloom, the earring, the clacking typewriter and the little girl's restless busybody gait. Yeah, this movie is pretty, but it isn't empty.

His soft-focus flashback/hallucination bits seemed like the work of a lesser TV director, though.

Redgrave at the end had my eyes glued so tight, a fade out or cut to black at the end of her talk would have DONE IT.

The Dunkirk tracking shot just reminded me of the mind-raping Russian war film Come and See, when the camera trailed weary resistance fighters marching for several minutes after a devastating assault, Mozart's Requiem just going and going. Soon enough, you felt their aches, pains and fear of the road ahead.

It's not fair to go off into critiquing Keira's weight in a discusion about the film. But who ever said I was fair?: If she had packed on 30 pounds for this film, given Wright's sensual way of photographing her, I might have ended up licking the screen.
OK, let me go on record again as saying that Keira Knightley gave a good performance. Now, let me put on my Rex Reed mask here...

Josh R., Keira does have the Pfeiffer Problem. She's facially gorgeous, but when she turns sideways, she disappears. And remember: the camera adds 20 pounds, so I bet you in person she's like a piece of Scotch tape.

I recall hearing the costume designer on Atonement, Jacqueline Durran, talking about Knightley being able to rock the rubber swimming cap she had to wear in her scene. If nothing else, Durran is to be commended for creating that dress. Sure, it was flat on both sides, but it really flowed on Ms. Knightley and took on a life of its own.

I don't know too much about ogling preadolescent boys, but I can tell you when I was one, I weighed more than Ms. Knightley. There's probably some little blonde girl in the suburbs sticking her entire arm down her throat right now so she can be thin like Keira. Put some weight on her though, and I'll go to war for her.

Boone, I'm with you on Redgrave. She pulls off that scene with enough complexity that we're all arguing about what it meant. I also agree that the film should have cut to black after Redgrave's "I gave them their happiness." Showing them frolicking around is kind of a cheat, like when they showed Patrick Swayze with Demi Moore at the end of Ghost, instead of showing that Demi was really dancing with Whoopi Goldberg. If they'd done that, they would have had to change the song from Unchained Melody to that song that goes "the ink is black, the page is white..."
I think we can all agree that Ghost was sorely in need of some Demi-on-Whoopi action.

When you mentioned the words "Scotch tape", I instantly started thinking about James McAvoy's Scotch tape. You know what I'm talking about. I doesn't take much to send my mind reeling into the gutter.
Odie--love the Dennis Potter reference. Long live Brimstone and Treacle!
I finally saw Atonement. I liked the novel well enough, but the movie to me was a true snoozer. I do have to say that a plausible case can be made for McAvoy as lead, but there is no way, no how that Knightley is. I bet if you added up the screen time, the young Briony had more minutes than Knightley does.
It would be even more of a snoozer if it weren't so gosh darn pretty to look at.

I think anyone who sees the film has to arrive at the same conclusion about Knightley's status as the three of us have. That's why I tend to think she's a goner as far as a lead actress Oscar nomination goes. Christie, Page and Cotillard (blechh) are set to go, Jolie is looking awfully solid, and Blanchett would seem to be the most logical choice for the fifth slot (although looks can be deceiving). I imagine if anyone manages to get in at Blanchett's expense, it will be Amy Adams, but there are other possibilities out there. I'm still rather surprised at how quickly Linney's candidacy collapsed.
I stand by my enjoyment of the film, though some people leaving the theater with me mentioned they were bored during the film. I thought it was great to look at and great to watch. It'll be on my ten best list, though that list is looking rather thin right now.

Knightley's Best Actress Golden Glob nomination is a result of her making bangers and mash for the florists. And you know what I mean when I say bangers and mash. She won't get the Oscar nod, but I still say McAvoy might sneak in.

I'm rooting for Amy Adams to get that Oscar nod.
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