Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Atonement Film Review

AtonementPicking up where 2013 (along with my collaborator and I) skipped over, we’re back for another go. Seriously, this year has had its share of poignant passings and anniversaries, along with overly busy schedules and general upheaval, already. What’s that old saying about March? “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” I know friends in parts of the country who’d dispute that, besides me. Onward and upward, I suppose.

The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I will return to the fold, as was done the previous annum, with a bit of romance for this duo post. One that should have arrived in February (like last year), but there it is. My colleague Rachel will examine the prose of a book later adapted to film, which I will review. For this month, the wordy one will examine a work by the English novelist and screenwriter, Ian McEwan.

His 2001 book, Atonement, won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. It was adapted by screenwriter Christopher Hampton for the British romantic (slash) drama (slash) war film directed by Joe Wright in 2007. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

Atonement by Iam McEwan

A brief synopsis of the film: Wealthy estate, England, 1935. Briony Tallis, a budding thirteen year old girl, of letters and mind, spends her summer as the young and affluent are wont to do. Writing her imaginations down and presenting them to family members for approval and attention. Secretly, she has a crush on one Robbie Turner. The handsome son of her family’s servant who has returned with a Cambridge education courtesy of his mother’s employer. The same young man who only has eyes for Briony’s older sister, Cecilia. After first spotting Cecilia and Rob’s rising romance, and outraged later at catching them in an intimate moment, calamity arrives with her pique. Briony will damn one, and ultimately both, by informing authorities that Rob committed the heinous act discovered on the estate. The repercussions of the lie will echo throughout the six decades to come.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“My darling, Briony found my address somehow and sent a letter. The first surprise was she didn’t go up to Cambridge. She’s doing nurse’s training at my old hospital. I think she may be doing this as some kind of penance. She says she’s beginning to get the full grasp of what she did and what it meant. She wants to come and talk to me. I love you. I’ll wait for you. Come back. Come back to me.”

I recall when this film debuted on this side of the pond and for some reason I didn’t want to see it. The motion picture seemed like pure Oscar-bait. Crafted for the big screen solely for the distinct purpose of garnering acclaim and film awards. I can’t explain why I dismissed it out of hand like that. Every other studio does it, especially our own, so why hold that against it? Perhaps, it was the premise laid out by reviewers that turned me off. Maybe it’s that I have a limited, narrow tolerance for films of the romance ilk — outside of rom-coms, that is. Plus, it’s just so… British.

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I know, I know. Paraphrasing Inspector Kemp, “Jealousy is an ugly thing…” As my guest post contributor, Kevin (aka Jack Deth) in his most recent It Rains… piece admitted,

“I have come to the conclusion that the Brits do some things better than the U.S. Documentaries are a given. As are some forms of urban gangster films. Police procedurals that leave U.S. contemporaries in the dust. And costume dramatic and comedic period pieces best enjoyed on wet, rainy weekend afternoons.”

That last sentence fits Atonement to a tee. Something for those “… wet, rainy weekend afternoons” to warm the heart and dab away the tears. With the rich dialogue only the English churn out without seeming effort. Admittedly, it is their language. We, who gave so much consternation back in the late-1700s, have bastardized it all to Hell and gone these many years later. Serves us right. Maybe that explains it. Why literary classics like Pride and Prejudice and I don’t see much in each other. Oh heck, I still don’t have a hankerin’ to start a Downton Abbey marathon anytime soon. Admittedly, I suggested the novel/film for this series, too. My own penance it would appear.

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Ah, but I digress. Joe Wright’s adaptation remains splendid in many ways. And there are parts of it that enthralled and held my interest. More than once catching my eye with what was on the screen during the film’s languid 123 minute runtime. Atonement was simply gorgeous to watch. There, I said it. DP Seamus McGarvey‘s lensing was nothing short of extraordinary. And if there’s a couple of things that certainly standout in the entire production, one had to be the meandering and epic tracking shot on the beach of Dunkirk. The sequence should be mandatory viewing for every film viewer, blogger, or student to watch, just to see how it should be done.

Of course, the second would be the scene where anyone who ever held a book in their hands, or scanned a shelf for a particular title, would confess, “I never thought you could do that in a library.” I’m sure there are more than a few librarians out there who could write a tell-all and confirm the assertion. Either way, I think we all need a room like this in our homes for this purpose alone. Certainly, Keira Knightley and James McAvoy framed and contorted to viewers’ undeniable pleasure. Yes siree. Nothing prim or reserved, that’s for sure. A new definition of ‘pining’ that left Victorian romance in the dust, at least for this sequence. That director Wright could pull this off, especially with the rail-thin Ms. Knightley, was commendable.

that library

Now, I’ve read some who claim Atonement was an “… amazing story about love, truth, and justice.” Perhaps. I’d only have a problem with that last part. Or at the very least the portions that too often came off as clever. Way too clever. The literary motif running through the film was nice, but a little overdone for my taste. The film’s rhythms set to the strikes of typewriter keys were artful (especially for those of us old enough to have used such devices in real life), but became tiresome since it was placed so obviously as part of the film’s musical score. Then, there was the story…

I do appreciate that the screenplay did not explain away everything (as we Yanks are so damned guilty of these days) and left it to the audience to experience and piece together for themselves. With the narrative’s jumps through time being the prime hurdle. Still, a good thing. So, too, the unspoken bits of class tension and inequity in the tale. And yet, I didn’t love it. A bad thing for something involving romance, wouldn’t you say? Along with the symbolism utilized. Foot washing? Really? It’s a beautiful production. No argument there. And one with a fairly rich cast — the creepy Saoirse Ronan standing out with Knightly and McAvoy, for sure. With splendid support from Brenda Blethyn, that cad Benedict Cumberbatch, and the film legend that is Vanessa Redgrave.

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Read the spoiler warning above, didn’t you?

However, the as yet unspoken elephant in the room (English metaphorical idiom, btw) was the twist Atonement offered up by story’s end. You’ll either love it, à la Memento, or feel the rug pulled out from under you (I got a million of them, folks). Possibly, ripped off (yes, an American axiom I had to interject) in the process. You can probably guess where I’ve landed on this. The arrival of the sequence, akin to a sound only a few us remember well enough these days, can cause neck injury when watching this most stylish of productions. It’s that kind of change, folks. A pull out moment, if there ever was one. And don’t get me started on the utter conceit offered up by the key character of the entire film that caused me to throw something at the screen during this, my initial viewing:

“So, my sister and Robbie were never able to have the time together they both so longed for… and deserved. Which ever since I’ve… ever since I’ve always felt I prevented. But what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that? So in the book, I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or… evasion… but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.”

Did it ruin the film for me? No. I can’t say it did. Not entirely. Joe Wright is an obvious talent. A filmmaker that continues to gather notice (last year’s Hanna certainly grabbed my attention). His war scenes offered uncommon contrast (“Where character often tops action…“, as Kevin stated). Ronan’s guest review from last year of his latest film being another motivator to view more of the man’s work. No surprise this gathered BAFTA’s highest award that year. Though, coming up short around Oscar time, especially for Christopher Hampton’s writing and McGarvey’s cinematography. For all one knows, the Academy and me not giving Atonement a higher return or more praise was conceivably our (slash) their (slash) my lack of understanding for the outstanding British method of film and romance. Or maybe being distracted by the fact that Keira needs to eat more than a salad, for chrissakes. But, at least the film was not The English Patient!

I sincerely hope my facetious tone did not insult my friends and readers from the U.K. If it did, my apologies. Just get me the Hell out of March! I promise I’ll be nicer.

Parallel Post Series

31 Responses to “Atonement Film Review”

  1. Cavershamragu

    A fine and well considered review of a film that while definitely better than the absurdly overpraised THE ENGLISH PATIENT may not necessarily stand the test of time. As for the twist, well, it was a talking point and helped sell the movie and the book (where I saw it coming a mile off as any self-respecting John Fowles fan should) but I agree, it may have belonged to a different story entirely.

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  2. idawson

    Good piece! I really liked this film and as the events unfolded (unravelled, maybe?) I was like W.T….. I tried to read the book, but I have never been a great reader of works of fiction and the narrative structure was a little hard for me to follow. I think at some point I might revisit. But I digress.

    Romola Garai and Saorsie Ronan were the standout talents for me. Of course I think that is the way it should have been seeing as the story was from (mostly) her perspective and ultimately Robbie and Cecilia would end up pawns in her story anyway. At least that was my take on it ;)

    And the ending worked fine for me because so much was lost along the path of the story.

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, I had the same difficulty with the novel, Iba. And its narrative structure and prose caused me the most issues. Good call about Romola Garai, the one I didn’t mention. I agree that Robbie and Cecilia are the unfortunate pawns in the story. Thanks for the kind words and offering your thoughts on the film, my friend.

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  3. Rachel

    I absolutely adore your attempt to not hate this movie. I’ve done the same thing. When you watch/read something that so obviously has merit but you still hate it it’s hard to just hate, right? :)

    I also didn’t see this when it first came out. I hate being told how much I’m going to love something before it’s ever released and I’m not a big fan of Knightley. I don’t think much of her acting abilities and her bony frame scares me a little. However, I’m a big fan of many of the other performers, Blethyn, Redgrave and McAvoy especially, so I finally caved when it was on video. Now I wouldn’t miss 13yo Briony’s performance for anything. She’s not exactly how I pictured her in the book but I do still really like watching that actor perform.

    The movie ending didn’t bother me at all because I wasn’t nearly as invested in the relationship due to my aversion to Knightley’s representation of Cecilia. I just liked watching all the pretty pictures, the Dunkirk shot, and the camera’s love affair with McAvoy. The cinematography is amazing and using it to “halo” McAvoy was, imo, genius and beautifully done. If I remember my movie comments correctly it was to reflect the fact that we see these characters through Briony’s re-creation of them and so they are going to lose a lot of their flaws. Cecilia is also re-created in this way but definitely not to the same extent as Robbie and it comes through in the movie very well for me. (It reminds me a lot of Ralph Fiennes in both Quiz Show and The Constant Gardener as I think the directors want viewers to have very specific character opinions and so use the camera to influence those “angelic” thoughts.)

    So, do I love this movie? Not really. Have I watched it a few times? Yep. That beach scene is so worth it, a few of the actors can’t be missed, and Mr. Wright makes me fall in love with Robbie EVERY DAMN TIME so there is something there worth watching… just not necessarily worth liking all that much. Huh. Movies can be weird.

    I’m glad you suggested this one simply because it lends itself so well to discussion. Thanks!

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    • le0pard13

      Y’know, reading your comment, and the moments you cite, a lot of the film and its scenes come back to me. Meaning, they’re in my head. That’s a little scary.

      “I just liked watching all the pretty pictures, the Dunkirk shot, and the camera’s love affair with McAvoy.”

      Good point. I know they really tried to frame Ms. Knightly in a classic sense, but McAvoy came off more natural and just looked better on screen. Even for me!

      Glad you know the novel and movie so well. And yes, movies can be weird like this one. If I really didn’t care about the film, I wouldn’t have thrown anything at the screen, I guess. The strange thing I didn’t realize was I actually had a copy of this film in my DVD library. I was going to Netflix it, till I realized that.

      All very strange. Wonderful thoughts, as always, Rachel. Thank you.

      p.s., for those reading this, I recommend taking a look at Rachel’s book review. More great thoughts on this book/film combo.

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  4. Rachel

    Forgot to say that foot washing thing doesn’t happen in the book, doesn’t that make you want to try to read it again? ha!

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  5. ruth

    Beautiful review, Michael!! I need to rewatch this as my first viewing was quite a while ago. Needless to say I was blown away, it was sooo heart-wrenching and you’re right, I don’t know if this film speaks about justice, more like lack thereof.

    That long tracking shot of Dunkirk is incredible, I was in awe when I saw that, wow! You’re right it should be a subject in film classes. I’m not typically fond of Keira but she’s wonderful here, able to convey the pathos of Cecilia. McAvoy is superb as always, his facial expression when he’s dragged away by the police breaks my heart… The performances are just fantastic all around, Redgrave never disappoints, neither does Saoirse and the so-underrated Romola Garai playing the same role. Oh, and there’s even a memorable turn by the now superstar Benedict Cumberbatch!

    P.S. Btw, I think the author’s name is Ian McEwan, not Iam :D

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Ruth. I may have picked on Keira a tad too much here, But dear God, she makes Audrey Hepburn look fat. I found her thin frame ever more frighteningly skinny in this compared to some earlier features she starred in. But this was a star-making role for McAvoy. Thanks so much for the read and comment (and for spotting the typo… which I’ve fixed), my friend.

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  6. fernandorafael

    Great review, Michael. I love Atonement and even though you didn’t, I’m glad to see you have some appreciation for it. Amazing write-up!

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  7. pgcooper1939

    Good review. Personally I really like the twist. As for the film itself, it has a lot of elements I really like, but I can’t completely embrace it and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just the nature of what it is. Still a great film.

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks for read and comment, Daniel. I like the way you phrased it, “… can’t completely embrace it…“. Same here.

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  8. Maya M.

    Belatedly arriving at this post, and enjoying your insights. Have not read the book, nor am I inclined to because I was so overwhelmingly appalled that the violated girl was forced to marry her violator that it overpowered all else. I like James McAvoy so much that it evened out Keira Knightly’s presence (who only ever convinced me with her performance in ‘Pride & Prejudice’). As a not so secret fan of British set films and novels, this should have gone straight to my autobuy list, but even with McAvoy and even though I thought it was worthwhile watching the first time, I have no desire to see it a second.

    On an extremely loosely related note – Ms. Ronan (whom I always cast in my head as the precocious Flavia Deluce when reading Alan Bradley’s excellent cozy mystery series) did a great job in ‘Hanna’ – but can you explain something that has me scratching my head? Father and daughter are desperately trying to escape pursuit by the villainess – but wasn’t the father the very one who launched that pursuit by sending out the signal from their frozen hideout in the first place? That mystified me.

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    • le0pard13

      Good to hear from you again, Maya. I agree that connective scene with the girl marrying that cad was appalling. I’m with you in that I’ve no urge to watch it again.

      Oh yes, wasn’t Saoirse Ronan great as Hanna? Erik (Bana) did initiate the pursuit, but it was to launch Hanna’s mission, which was to ultimately kill Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Hope that makes sense.

      Thanks so much for the fine comment, Maya.

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