January 05, 2008

MOVIES: Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)

For most of the way, Atonement is a perfectly fine period piece, elevated above its melodramatic material by some very good performances.

We begin in 1938, on an English country estate where 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is putting the finishing touches on her first play, which she wants her cousins to perform that night in honor of her older brother's visit. As she looks out the window, she sees an erotically charged encounter between her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and groundskeeper Robbie (James McAvoy), an encounter which she doesn't entirely understand -- or at least, isn't willing to admit that she understands perfectly well. That misunderstanding will eventually lead Briony to make a horrible false accusation that will destroy the lives of all three.

For the second half of the movie, we leap forward to the war, and watch the ways in which Briony's actions (she's now played by Romola Garai) are still affecting all three of the principals. There is a remarkable 5-minute tracking shot set on the beach at Dunkirk; it's an impressive piece of movie making, though I'm not sure that there's much point to it beyond "see what a big set we have, and how many extras."

The central performances range from adequate to very good. Knightley is well cast; she's not a warm actress, but her brittleness works nicely here, since Cecilia spends much of the movie angry at someone -- if not at Briony, then at herself. McAvoy is a top-notch romantic hero, with that veddy British brand of restrained passion; and Ronan is excellent as the young Briony, a girl of great intelligence and little wisdom. (Garai as the older Briony is less effective; the physical resemblance is impressive, but I didn't for an instant sense in Garai the spark of creativity or intelligence.)

Dario Marianelli's score is another of the movie's strengths; it's built on obsession, often repeating a single melodic phrase, rhythm, or even one note over and over, and cleverly incorporating the typewriter as a percussion instrument.

At this point, we get to the central flaw of the movie, and it's a biggie that cannot be talked about without giving away the final plot twist. So if you're among the spoiler-averse, stop reading now.

In the final ten minutes of the movie, we leap to the present day, where the elderly Briony (now played by Vanessa Redgrave, who is quite marvelous, and is entirely believeable as the older version of Ronan's character) is being interviewed on the publication of her 21st novel. That novel is her version of these very events, but she confesses to the interviewer that she has changed some things to give Robbie and Cecilia the happy ending they never had in life. In reality, it turns out, neither of them survived the war, and the scene we've watched in which Briony confesses her wrongs to them never actually happened.

Now, the unreliable narrator trick is a perfectly legitimate way to tell a story, but for it to play fair with the audience, you have to actually establish that there is a narrator, which Atonement has never done. It is only in the moment of Redgrave's revelation that we realize we have actually been watching Briony's novel, instead of -- as we believed -- an objective version of these events. That's a terrible cheat, and it left me with a sour taste in my mouth that the movie as a whole probably doesn't deserve.

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