Sunday, January 27, 2008

Going to the Movies Part II

A.S. (that is Ante Script—you know, not P.S. Post Script but Ante. . .oh, never mind)
As I am about to write the second round of movie reviews, I must note that my husband and I did it again yesterday—went to two MORE movies, so after I get through with Atonement, and then No Country for Old Men, I will move on to There Will be Blood, and finally Michael Clayton.

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I have always enjoyed reading movie reviews, and among my favorite reviewers are Richard Schickel and the late Pauline Kael.


Many years ago, when I was in my first college teaching job, I organized the first ever film festival that college had. At the time, Richard Schickel was writing for Life magazine, and he wrote such wonderful, erudite movie reviews that I thought it would be grand to get him to come and be a keynote speaker. Imagine my delight and amazement when I discovered that I could indeed engage him for the occasion. I picked him up at our local airport, and took him out to lunch along with my husband and several fellow faculty. Lunch wasn’t as exciting as I had anticipated, as Mr. Schickel barely talked. We then continued to the campus, and he gave his speech. What was painfully clear, at least in that speech, was that as well as he might write, he could not speak engagingly. I was crushed. That failure obviously didn’t hurt his career, as he is still writing
movie reviews.

I think the reason I liked Pauline Kael so much, who wrote her
reviews for the New Yorker magazine, was that she was so biting in her analyses. It was rare for her to recommend a movie unqualifiedly. There was always something that could have been improved. So if she did recommend a movie, I knew it would be a work of art.

I am no Richard Schickel or Pauline Kael, but here goes on another movie.

Of the now five movies we saw in our movie binge week plus, Atonement is the most self-consciously cinematic movie. By that I mean, you are constantly aware of the loveliness of some shots, of the deeply infused symbolic meaning of other. There are some terrific scenes showing London during World War II, complete with sandbags stuffed full doorways. No comment is made on any of these scenes—they simply add to your sense of the time and place. Further, there are some incomprehensible unexplained scenes—for example, why does it matter that a flower vase is broken?

Atonement is adapted from Ian McEwen’s book of the same name. Told in three parts, the movie explores how lives are changed when a young girl, in an upper class family in pre-World War II England, witnesses a scene between her sister and the son of hired help, wherein the flower vase gets broken. The girl, Briony Tallis, has a very active imagination and spends much of her time writing stories and plays. Her sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) has just returned home having been studying at Cambridge. We soon learn that the young man, Robbie (James McAvoy), has also attended Cambridge through the largesse of Cecelia’s and Briony’s father.

We see the initial scene through a dual telling, once as Briony perceived it, and then as it happened between Cecelia and Robbie. This initial scene helps us to anticipate Briony’s tendency to misinterpret and exaggerate what she witnesses. This character flaw is critical. When Robbie writes a note to Cecelia, to apologize for his behavior during the scene, he writes several versions. One of them is frankly risqué. Finally, he handwrites the message he intends to give to Cecelia but in his haste inadvertently puts the risqué note in the envelope. As fortune would have it, he gives the envelope to Briony to deliver to her sister.

Predictably, Briony reads the note. Her 13-year old mind concludes that he is “a sex maniac” and she is now primed to misinterpret other events. A key scene occurs in the family estate library when Cecelia, who realizes she is attracted to Robbie, encounters him and they begin to kiss passionately. Enter Briony, who once again misinterprets what she sees.

The family is having a formal dinner together that evening, to which Robbie has been invited. During the meal, young twin cousins who are visiting the Tallis family go missing. Everyone goes out to search for them. During the search in the dark, the twins’ sister is attacked by someone you cannot see. However, Briony sees who it is.

When the police arrive, Briony becomes the star witness. “It was him” she says—pointing to Robbie. When challenged to ascertain if she is sure, Briony affirms that she saw what she saw.

The second part of the movie occurs several years later, with Britain now in the first days of World War II. We see each of the three principles going about their lives, altered by the war. Cecelia is a nurse working in a hospital, Robbie is in France, and Briony is in nurse training, which her sister opines might be Briony’s way of trying to atone for what she did. The consequences of Briony’s accusation are still being played out.

Finally, in the third part of the story, we encounter Briony as an aging and dying woman. She is a highly successful author, and she is being interviewed on the publication of her last work. She remarks that she has written this last book as a way to finally tell the truth, to make atonement. She acknowledges her actions as a young girl set three lives on their courses. Finally, we the viewers learn the truth of the intertwined lives of these people.

Several elements of this movie are stand-out smashing. First, there is the acting of the young star who plays the child Briony—Saoirse Ronan. She has marvelous concentration of expression and startlingly clear blue eyes. With each iteration of Briony, with Romola Garai (who we saw in King Lear in the role of Cordelia), and finally Vanessa Redgrave as the aging Briony, the blue eyes remain the same.

Throughout the movie, music (somewhat annoyingly) underscores the frantic tension building, with its repetitive striking of a type-writer keyboard sound running under the pizzicato of violins. The scenery is riveting at times. In the middle segment, we see Robbie among the haunted soldiers trying to evacuate at Dunkirk. He and two companions wander around a beachside carnival. There is a forlorn Ferris wheel in the distance, a garish merry-go-round, and a gazebo where a group of soldiers strike up an impromptu hymn sing. It is as surreal a scene as you can imagine—like a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell.

While I had read the novel in advance of seeing the movie, there was no disconnect for me at all. No moment of “oh, I liked the book better” or “the movie was better than the book.” Atonement, while a somewhat challenging a movie to see (I think having read the novel helped me), is definitely deserving of a Best Movie nod—whether as an Academy Award nominee, or as your pick for the next movie to see. I would add that knowing the story line was immeasurably helpful to me in following the plot, so you may want to read a
plot summary, avoiding of course any plot spoiler so read only parts 1 and 2. (It is so helpful when Wikipedia puts a big **Spoiler Alert** caution in its movie summaries; this one does not have that, though, since this summarizes the novel).

8 comments:

Cathy said...

I really wanted to see this movie, but I understand the second half has some very graphic violence. Dang. I just can't do it. Maybe I can rent it later and fast-forward.

Anvilcloud said...

It pleases me to read your positive review. For whatever reason, we don't make to all that many flicks, but I really liked this one. I think I followed it pretty well without having read the book. My main critique might be that the army segment got a little draggy.

nina said...

OOOOO!
Maybe this'll go on my "must see" list!
And I appreciate the advance warning of it being hard to follow (at times) and having the graphic violence--I'm not one to demand I be surprised--a "be prepared" comment is greatly appreciated.
Thanks.

JeanMac said...

What a terrific review - new career? Now I def. will see it.

KGMom said...

Cathy--I wouldn't say there's any violence in Atonement. The war scenes are surreal, not violent. There is a scene in the hospital with Briony as a student nurse, and while it is graphic, it is a "medical" kind of graphic.
Of course, I can't speak for what your tender heart can or cannot handle, but of the movies we saw on our movie binge, Atonement is the least violent.

Mary said...

A movie with romance, history, suspense, and drama sounds great. I'll remember this, Donna, when I choose my next movie. So far, I have two good leads from you! Thanks!

Pam said...

Since I can no longer go to the movies, my husband and I wait for the DVDs. You critiqued some movies that I really would like to see and your positive input is encouraging.

dguzman said...

Wow, Donna, you write a great review! I too loved the reviews of Pauline Kael and I miss reading her.

I've been wondering about this movie; I'm still a little undecided, but maybe I'll go check it out. Thanks!