Saturday, March 14, 2009


*Note: This is another installment in The Film Official's not-quite-a-series series on films from 2007. Eventually, there might be a whole post that celebrates a movie year which, by comparison, slapped 2008 around like, I dunno, this?

Atonement deserves a lot of credit for not sucking.

Obviously a lot of it should go to Ian McEwan, the dude who wrote the book on which the film was based*.

*I haven't read the book, here's a review of it from baseball analyst/book junkie Keith Law. Beware -- spoilers aplenty.)

The story starts at an English mansion somewhere (sorry -- it all looks the same to me), but luckily the book/film isn't a typical Costume Party for the Rich, not for the duration. Even the well-to-do characters end up elsewhere, and in tough situations. Some are self-imposed, some most certainly are not self-imposed, as -- in this Best Picture nominee -- a poor kid (James McAvoy) gets quite the shaft from a lovestruck young girl (Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan early, two other actresses later) who is jealous of McAvoy's forbidden relationship with her sister (Keira Knightley).

But this isn't one of those Merchant/Ivory-type snooze fests -- which, in the words of a person close to me, are little more than "stuffy British melodramas." Not quite. After that melodramatic setup and its main plot point (which involves a word once used to describe Larry David's wife's beloved aunt -- that link is most definitely NSFW), a good deal of the story exists on battlefields and in a wartime hospital and other not-so-glamorous places.

Like I said, it's still pretty melodramatic: Heavy issues -- true love, betrayal and, of course, atonement. Not much levity here. Some VERY SERIOUS conversations and confrontations, the kind that only seem to happen in fiction*. And lots of war-is-hell elements -- which sorry to say, are ordinary and played out**. In all, despite the film's surprisingly short two-hour runtime, it still seems a little lengthy, a bit bulky.

*Then again, considering how Atonement ends, there's something to that fact.

**Seriously, war is bad? I had NO idea.

Again, though, it doesn't suck. From the start you can tell it's different -- that aforementioned word clues you in that there's not an overwhelming sense of "proper," which is what drags a lot of these British Upper Crust movies down. The way it's filmed* -- director Joe Wright uses some creative devices, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey crafts some undeniably beautiful images, and Dario Marianelli's Oscar-winning score is unusual (the main character is a writer, and a typewriter's click cleverly serves as percussion in several places) -- also is an asset.

*I must say, though, while it's a remarkable achievement cinematically, that 5 1/2-minute tracking shot left me wondering: Yeah, but ... so what?

Then there's the ending, which gave the book's critics (at least the aforementioned Keith Law) a lot of pause. It involves an unusual narrative device -- I won't spoil it here -- but I can see why it left some angry, especially in written form. Strangely, in the film version, it kind of works. Movies so often are saddled with cheesy, cop-out Hollywood endings where everything gets settled neatly and cleanly. Atonement's, though -- even if it is, shall we say, told and not shown -- does not follow that pattern. Although a similar device was used far more cleverly in Adaptation (my personal vote for the best film ever, BTW), Atonement deserves points for not turning itself into fairy tale (and ... fade to black with swelling, happy music!) or simple climactic tragedy (and ... fade to black after the horrible final incident).

Oh my God, I think I just talked myself into liking this movie*.

*Still, in the context of 2007, it's not even remotely top-10. Stay tuned ...

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