Atonement (2007) isn't half so bad; for at least most of the running
time, it's a dandy, sumptuous adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel about
a young girl (Briony Tallis, played by Saoirse Roman), her lies,
and their devastating effect on the lives of two young lovers (Robby
Turner and Cecilia Tallis, respectively played by James McAvoy and
Along the way Wright brings Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's
talents to bear, and manages to evoke a world of half-lit rooms
and overcast landscapes; if the sun ever does break through (as
it does in a lengthy four-minute shot, in Dunkirk), it's to bathe
the characters in the warm glow of a coal fire, a dying one, meant
partly to symbolize the lovers' dimmed hopes for a happy life, partly
to express the Allies' slim chances for survival, partly to suggest
the fading might of the British empire.
shot, and the four-minute plus sequence in particular is an impressive
stunt borne out of necessity (Wright had lost a day of shooting,
so he decided to film most of the Dunkirk sequence in a single take)
and a presumed hunger to win one of those gold doorstops Hollywood
filmmakers always scramble after (somewhat successfully; for the
record it earned several nominations, among them best picture--won
only for music), never mind that much of it is sentimental claptrap
(the choir singing a mournful dirge, the horses being slaughtered
(a reference perhaps to a similar scene in Theo Angelopoulos' great
Topio stin omichli (Landscapes in the Mist, 1988)?)).
Equally impressive if not more so (and far more relevant to the
narrative) is a shot of the star-crossed lovers kissing at a window,
and the camera descending to capture the young girl, now a young
woman, standing below, pointedly exempted from their romantic bliss.
It should be clear to anyone watching that Wright is doing his level
best to pump up the proceedings, to shake the cobwebs from an otherwise
standard-issue period picture, with anemic sensibility and doddering
might be right to do this too, if it was anything like his last
work, a 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (maybe
not--Austen is one of the least sentimental of great writers, and
if it takes a bit of introduction to ease oneself into her world
of precisely tooled social cogs and gearwheels, once in you eventually
sense an overall intelligence controlling the action, commenting
on it with a cool, confident air (Austen's authorial voice, in fact).
That intelligence does not, I believe, need any explaining; it's
immortal, universal, the source of her enduring greatness).
But the source for this picture is McEwan, one of the more modern
(post-modern?) of sensibilities, with a streak of perverse cruelty
matched only perhaps by John Fowles. Does McEwan need any easing
into his world, any prefatory note to warn us of the complexities
of his narrative? I think not; I think much of the shenanigans Wright
inserts into the picture are pretty much unnecessary (this including
the virtuoso long take at Dunkirk).
been better served by filmmakers who recognize the strangeness of
his fiction, who allow that strangeness to shine all the brighter
by keeping the visual style low-key and familiar (think of the austere
camerawork (in otherwise decadent Venetian settings) of Paul Schrader's
The Comfort of Strangers (1990)--possibly the best adaptation of
McEwan to date).
himself in a series of missteps. The crucial scene at the library
is pretty much chopped up (did Kiera Knightley insist that her nipples
not be shown?), so that we're as confused about what's going on
as poor Briony, who thinks Cecilia is being raped; when Briony crashes
a church wedding and sits by a soldier dying in bed, the lighting
and music are so stylized that we can't help but feel we're witnessed
to an extended fevered dream. Which, as it turns out, may be the
case, giving the game away early.
To be fair,
Wright's choice of Roman as Briony is brilliant--Roman at thirteen
captures the repulsive yet fascinating self-absorption of a sexually
curious brat, and her equivalent at 18, actress Romola Garai, shows
us in what directions of acute loneliness her monstrousness is headed.
His casting of James McAvoy as the unfortunate Robbie isn't too
bad; McAvoy captures the helpless anger of lower-class men promised
equality by liberal patriarchs, only to have it suddenly snatched
Cecilia, however, is disastrous--Knightley may have snowed critics
with her performance in Pride and Prejudice (which may be why Wright
believes in her so much) but here she's asked to carry the weight
of epic, tragic suffering on shoulders that look as if they could
barely hold up a romantic comedy.
no joke--that's why I couldn't buy Knightley in Pride and Prejudice
and why I thought Wright's version an overstrenuous affair, gothic
and hyperventilating. Better yet is the 1995 BBC mini-series, which
ran at the proper length (five hours' worth) to capture Austen's
precise tone, or even Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995) which transposed
Austen's Emma to Beverly Hills, neatly bypassing the problem of
a quick and painless introduction to Austen's intricate society
(Heckerling's genius conceit is that Hollywood teen flicks and Beverly
Hills, 90210 have already done the job for her, and that these frivolous,
totally useless social classes are worthy of attention, even of
imaginative transformation into great comedy--a sentiment of which
Austen herself might have approved).)
is a disaster, a monstrously misconceived tearjerking farce to rival
the climax of Kurosawa's Subarashiki nichiyobi (One Wonderful Sunday,
1947) or Peter Jackson's abysmally sticky King Kong (2005), with
its hundred ton anthropoid gone ice-skating.
The action has moved to present day, and Briony (now played by Vanessa
Redgrave) is being interviewed on television; some startling revelations
are made (startling only, of course, if you haven't noticed all
the clues Wright has been dropping like thousand-pound bombs throughout
the latter half of the movie), and the picture ends with Redgrave
essentially pleading with the audience to clap their hands and believe
I've heard alternate interpretations--that Briony's position is
just wishful thinking, and meant to be taken as such--but it's hard
not to think that Wright has cast his lot firmly and unambiguously
with the character when he unleashes the physically impressive Redgrave
on us, in gigantic close-up (Knightley, by way of comparison, looks
like an amuse bouche on a toothpick). McEwan should spin in his
grave upon viewing what they've done to his novel, I think; or,
since he's still living among us, he should keel over dead and then
start spinning, stat.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in Businessworld, 03.14.08.