Archive for the ‘Atonement’ Category

365 – Atonement

January 11, 2008

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this movie is a twisty-curvy, tightly plotted suspense thriller on the order of Notes on a Scandal. Instead of a plot that takes plausible but largely unforeseeable left turns, Atonement’s story is obvious, too blunt, and crackling with cliche. Everything, from the haphazard direction and editing to the numb acting, is a bit of an embarrassment to all involved.

Wildly overrated, Atonement is closer in style and scope to a Merchant-Ivory film, so if that’s your cup of tea, you might like this one a little more than I did. But it’s more like the dimwitted, held-back-in-school bastard child of such films, because although it contains all the proper hoity-toity attitude and pretty costumery, it has none of the subtlety or charm – in short, the characters are all largely unsympathetic, giving the audience no one to root for. This isn’t always a deal breaker for me, but when the characters are dull, vapid, vacuous space takers, it does sort of put a damper on things.

At age 13, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a pretentious, self-possessed newbie writer. She’s supposed to be a child prodigy of sorts, but she seems more perfunctory than imaginative (to be sure, we don’t get much of a glimpse of her writing efforts at that age; it’s merely implied how great she is). She harbors a crush on the handsome, strapping son (James McAvoy) of her wealthy family’s housekeeper, who has long had eyes for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). On a hot summer day, Briony illicitly reads a note from Robbie (McAvoy) intended for Cecilia (gasp) and then later sees something she shouldn’t have. Subsequently the girl swears to seeing something she definitely didn’t see, her perspective colored by her feelings for Robbie and her interception of the note. This irrevocably alters the lives of all three, of course.

The movie jumps around quite a bit, timewise, which at one point was an interesting approach to filmmaking but more often than not nowadays seems sort of played out and unnecessary; here it’s done to confuse the audience a little bit, some trickery thrown in to distract from the fact that the plot itself is fairly bland and melodramatic. Because of Briony’s misinterpretation, Robbie winds up in prison and later in the military, fighting in WW II. Much of the film describes his attempts to get back to London to be with Cecilia. Cecilia, meanwhile, works as a waitress – a job that’s a bit lower than her family’s station should allow. Briony forgoes attending an exclusive writing academy and becomes a nurse, all owing to her guilt (not to mention her obstinancy).

But what does it all mean? That one person’s sworn testimony can screw up the lives of somewhat-innocent people? Oh, there’s news. In the end, it all feels like much ado about nothing. Has Briony truly atoned for her sin? Of course not. She didn’t have the guts to say anything when she had the power to do so; to make herself feel better, she writes a novel over the course of the rest of her life. So, no real atonement, just a general sense of comfort and insincere assuaging of guilt.

I think that’s the crux of the issue here – the movie feels insincere. Are Robbie and Cecilia madly in love, or do they just want to have hot sex all the time? Little in the early half of the movie indicates the former, and plenty of evidence is shown for the latter. But even if they are in love… well, here is where the issue of What the Movie Is crops up; this is not a psychological thriller, it’s a dopey romance movie. It’s a chick flick, even with some truly garish and probably unnecessary war scenes. (Do we really need to see burn victims? How does this further the plot?) The script is even based on a romance novel, by Ian McEwan. If pining for lost loves sounds like a grand old time to you, by all means dive into this murky, tortured movie.

As for the casting, it’s not terrible. Knightley, who has said she wants to play more mature roles, continues to look like a tal, bug-eyed boy, with her shapeless, bony figure. She’s not a bad actress, but she might have been a little in over her depth here; at no point did I feel sympathy toward Cecilia, although she’s supposed to be a victim here. McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) looks a little more girlish here than Knightley does, what with his impossibly red lips, even in the war scenes.

So. If you’re expecting a thick-plotted, twisty thriller about what happens when a lie spirals out of control, this is not the movie for you; if you like costume dramas with actors rising to their material, this is also not the movie for you; if you like love stories with no apparant happy ending and actors sinking to melodramatic depths, this is a winner.

*1/2