Monday, October 29, 2007

Triple Threat or How Atonement's Brionys are Brilliant!

The upcoming Joe Wright film Atonement (already screening in the UK but not set for American release til later this year) is based on Ian McEwan's novel and its literariness is not lost on screen. Dario Marianelli's score, for example keeps puncturing the film with the hard noise of a typewriter as if not wanting to let the audience forget that this is a movie, not just based on a book, but forcefully moving towards the creation of a book: Briony's novel.
Beautifully shot, Atonement never strays away from its fixation on writing - as James McAvoy's Robbie learns all too well, typing one four-letter word is enough to unravel the series of events that land him a false accusation and send him to fight in the war. Wright opens the film with one of the best first acts I have seen in film in a long time - the initial flirting between Kiera Knightley's Cecilia and Robbie is played out beautifully and climaxes in a very sensual scene in - where else? - a library. Pacing itself, the movie sets up the class distinction, the muted 'crime' and the romance in a way that the moment Briony accuses Robbie - in a moment of hesitation, revenge and bewilderment causes the movie to lose its focus for a bit. Formally of course, one can argue that the move from the estate to the trenches requires the film to lose balance and only slowly recover it.
Once we move into the war - and into a different type of writing: the epistolary form (following Robbie and Cecilia's letters) Wright's film starts meandering and as if knowing that the subject matter of the second act is lagging, he overcompensates with beautifully shot realistic scenes of the war: in particular I am thinking of the long take that follows McAvoy as he surveys the armed camp at Dunkirk as the soldiers of the Allied forces await their leave. Expertly crafted and reminding me of the choreographed shots in last year's Children of Men, Wright's take situates us spatially and emotionally in the grime of a world that was the war. And yet, I did not enjoy this part mainly because the film loses its main attraction for most of the war-centered plot: Briony.
It is not until we get the dubious re-encounter and the concluding narration that the movie returns to its original beat and builds to what is (for those of us who hadn't read McEwan's novel) arguably an unexpected ending that, wisely so, returns to writing to expose its centrality to the film.
Briony is by far McEwan's most interesting character in Atonement, and in the hands of Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave it becomes the keystone of the film: McAvoy and Knightley might be the selling point of the film (and the advertising campaign has definitely capitalised on their A-star status) and indeed the romance will be the aspect of the film most audience-members will cling to, but it is Briony who captured my attention. This is not to say that Knightley (better in this than in anything I had seen her before) and McAvoy (sizzling and talented as always) don't carry the film, but it is in the complex vision of the world of Briony that the film carries its force: from the childish (mis)understanding, to the nursing grief and all the way into retrospective guilt, Ronan, Garai and Redgrave create at once a cruel child, a numb nurse and a broken (though equally strong) woman.
Briony - maybe because she is the ultimate writer of the piece is the character that really made me fall in love with this movie. And in a film that configures itself as the living, breathing testament of her 'atonement' I strongly believe that not sympathizing with Briony (especially after seeing Redgrave command your attention with what seems like an unrehearsed monologue that showcases her strong performance) is a fault. Just for the triple threat of Briony, Wright's film is a must-see - once it opens here of course.

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