Sunday, December 23, 2007

FILM REVIEW: "Atonement"

A shaggy dog story (I credit my wife for that insight): with a final pay-off that seems a not quite an emotionally logical (albeit brilliantly clever) resolution to the main narrative if the story of "Romeo and Juliet" suddenly ends with a wrap-up about the Nurse dealing with her responsibility in the lovers' deaths...and you find out the love story didn't happen the way you thought it happened; because the Nurse lied in the telling.

The story of "Atonement" (within the story of "Atonement"): Poor son-of-a-servant boy greets grown-up-together rich girl at invited dinner party; their heat which has been long deferred, suddenly is almost (barely?) consummated. All this occurs by the way on day one of the film (and a long day it is: a long 40 minutes into the film!). But their coupling (wonderfully shot, by the way) is interrupted by a thirteen year old sister of the love-interest girl, a sister who also has an infatuation with the servant-boy, and who then proceeds to wreak her revenge on the caught lovers when a young friend of the family is later also caught by the young sister flagrant with someone else; the friend says she's been raped, and the infatuated sister blames it on the servant boy...she just saw him overheated; moreover she says she saw him do it!)

By now we're an hour into the film. The servant boy is off to prison.

The second half starts (second half; or another film?): 5 years later, and World War II (primarily around Dunkirk) where the British Army (including the servant boy who volunteered to change prison stripes for khakis) is catching war-hell from the Germans and is trying to get back to England. At this point the simple, single narrative, contained in the first hour of the film becomes surreal, illustrative, symbolic and agonizingly undramatic (one long overstuffed tracking shot is style substituting for narrative substance--a 'no-no' in my book)...culminating in the shaggy dog ending. (By this second-half part in the story the two rich sisters are nurses, bravely serving the war effort..and waiting for the servant boy--in Europe suffering from his wounds--to come home again.)

The lovers finally get together again...or so we think...and the lying sister seeks only a writer can...on a talk show plugging her book RE the love tale.

From the opening shot in the film of her as a thirteen year old, typewriter clacking, we see she is a writer--and in some ways the central narrative-drive in the film...(although from a pragmatic--$$$$$--point of view, a film about a thirteen-year old kid doesn't attract bankable stars and box-office so the star-crossed lovers have a lot of--in my mind, unnecessary and narrative-diverting--screen time).

Writing being the character-conceit in the film, the overall film contains stories within stories within stories (like many of these films about writers--SEE Charlie Kaufman's films) as well as the now obligatory 'in' novelistic style of flash forward, flash backward)...we get a plethora of post-modern mania for multiple points of view and no objective truth!...(which the Japanese film "Rashomon" achieved much more brilliantly, by the way, fifty years ago!!!)

By the almost-end of "Atonement", like an example of deus ex machina, we are introduced to Vanessa Redgrave as the now seventy-year-old plus formerly lying sister who wraps up the story for us. I kept thinking while watching her: I wish Ms. Redgrave had been onscreen from the beginning, alone, in a close-up, just telling us te whole story...she is that brilliant; and brave...unlike the 'moan'-y leads, James McAvoy and Keika Knightly, who are wonderfully accomplished actors, and successful...but tirelessly fixed--at least in this film--in the contemporary 'sigh and suffer' school of acting performances (SEE Ralph Fiennes).

"Atonement" is a beautifully mounted film, but a bit precious and artistically heated while simultaneous over-delicate. It was directed by Joe Wright; written by Christopher Hampton.


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