Monday, 25 February 2008

review: atonement (joe wright, 2007)

I must open this review with a couple of admissions. Firstly - and perhaps somewhat embarassingly for a literature student - I have not read Ian McEwan's novel, and can therefore only judge the film on its standalone merits. Secondly, I must also admit to having had a considerable prejudice towards the film that led me to delay watching it. Primarily this was because it seemed to be the sort of dull, insipid, vacuously pretty film which is automatically guaranteed prestige by virtue of its being
a) British
b) focused around an aristocratic period setting
c) based on a literary work of established reputation and importance.

Having finally watched it, I can safely say my prejudice was more or less half-right - take that as glass half-empty or glass half-full, whichever suits you best. Atonement does indeed take the glossy middlebrow period film to new levels of polished, shiny surface gloss. It is a showpiece of slick film-making craft, as polished as a luxury car in a showroom and only slightly more aesthetically meaningful. The film positively gleams, bathed in a warm, sensually nostalgic glow. It really is quite incredibly beautiful to look at in places - there is a rich sensuality to the luminous glow and saturated colours of Seamus McGarvey's cinematography that almost allows the film to get by on eye-candy alone.
But, by and large, this isn't the measured beauty of a Wong Kar-Wai or a Terrence Malick film, consciously moulded by a film-making intelligence keenly aware of its nuance, purpose and expressive intent; this is the shallow, ephemeral beauty of a postcard or a magazine cover. There is no depth of feeling, mood, texture or thought to the film's visual spectacle - this is simply a meaningless, indiscriminately-applied sheen of surface prettiness. The war hospital later in the film, packed with impeccably-uniformed nurses walking in perfect formation, is as gorgeous as the country mansion in the opening scenes. 

Which is not to say that Atonement is without merits. The film is at its best in its first half, as it traces the rapidly-intermeshing fates of the main players on a long, languid, hot summer's day on the palatial Tallis estate. Wright handles this section well - its complex temporal structure, with the film repeatedly looping back on itself to return to the same events, which shift in meaning and implication with each new point of view, nonetheless maintains a headlong forward momentum that creates a sense of uneasy and increasingly anticipatory foreboding tension - events can palpably be felt rushing towards the oncoming tragedy, with all the certainty of unavoidable fate. A key element in this is Dario Marianelli's excellent (and justly Oscar-winning) score, most notable in the remarkable opening sequence, where it incorporates the clatter of Briony (Saoirse Ronan)'s typewriter as events are inexorably set in motion, prefiguring the metafictional twist the film takes in its closing moments.  

It is disappointing that, contrary to what Karel Reisz did with The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), for instance, Wright fails to find a filmic interpretation of this aspect of the story, instead sticking to McEwan's literary device. Nonetheless, these early sections have a power, a sensual intensity and a complexity that suggests that the film cannot be summarily dismissed as a cynical attempt to make this decade's The English Patient. Keira Knightley and James McAvoy acquit themselves adequately, if unremarkably, but this first section of the film is dominated by Ronan's thirteen-year-old Briony, subtly displaying hints of ambition, pride and jealousy wrapped up in an uncomfortable in-between state of puberty - innately, perhaps instinctively, picking up undercurrents in the events she witnesses that she remains too young to consciously understand.  

Especially in these early sequences, Atonement achieves moments close to brilliance. But these moments come almost randomly, with no coherent and consistent aesthetic vision behind them to shape them into an effective whole. The technically astonishing four-minute Steadicam shot on the Dunkirk beach, in the film's World War II-dominated second section, is a case in point. It's a remarkably assured and effective scene in isolation, but it does not belong in the film - nothing that happens before prepares us for it, and nothing new comes from it. It sticks out like a sore thumb - elaborate and showstopping though it is, it's essentially a long distraction from the actual business of the film.

As the film goes on, it moves further and further away from its initial promise, and by the epilogue - essentially a monologue by the grown-up Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave - it descends entirely into mawkish, simplistic sentimentality. I have no idea how close to McEwan this monologue is, but on film what should have been anguished and profound - a dying woman's statement of regret at sins that have haunted her all her life - only comes across as cloying, simplistic and somewhat unconvincing. It's an unfortunate end to a film that initially seems to break away to some degree from the staid vacuity of the British heritage film, but that seems to run out of courage well before it runs out of screen time. 

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