Wednesday, December 12, 2007

And it's not even Yom Kippur yet

This one was pretty frustrating. Not because the film was bad, far from it. Joe Wright's adaptation of the acclaimed Ian McEwan novel, Atonement, is probably the most frustrating bit of film-going dissonance I've witnessed all year. There is a spectacular movie in there for the first hour, but unfortunately a muddled, meandering second half sends a compelling narrative off the rails.

Newcomer Saoirse Ronan plays Briony Tallis, a young English girl of privilege with an overactive imagination. She also sports a crush on former servant turned med-student Robbie (Last King of Scotland's James McAvoy) who works on the grounds of her family's exquisite mansion. Robbie, however, has eyes for Briony's older sister Cecilia (a never-better Keira Knightley). Their relationship is well-crafted, passionate and both actors have genuine chemistry. However, their romantic bliss is all too short lived when a combination of misunderstandings, secrets and lies has Briony fingering Robbie in a terrible crime.

This first act (whose details I'll keep secret so as to not detract from the enjoyment of those who have neither read or seen Atonement) is full to bursting with high quality performances, exquisite production design, rich dialogue and a compelling story all set to the propulsive tapping of a typewriter building suspense. Saoirse Ronan is an intriguing, decidedly un-twee child actor who has her moments of maturity, but is never afraid to look bratty or foolish. Its a nice change of pace from the Dakota Fannings of the world who are so saccharine as to be unbelievable. Keira is also a revelation here, embodying Cecilia with a restrained maturity that can give way to sweeping moments of tenderness and passion. It's a far departure from her go-girl in a corset schtick that she's fallen back on so often in the Pirates series and in her previous collaboration with director Wright, Pride and Prejudice.

This section also neatly underlines one of the book/film's central themes, that of the world-altering power of creative fiction; from the plays Briony encourages her relatives to perform to the devastating power of her lie has on her sister and Robbie's life. The second half of the film drops this thematic ball in that Briony's role is greatly reduced and the film becomes a sweeping romantic saga. The dilemma with this shift is that it dilutes the primary theme where the filmmakers suddenly realize the focus needs tending to again and does so with an all too brief and unsatisfactory coda.The problem with having the film become an epic romance is that the film doesn't have a lot to say about the characters after this point in the story. For example, there is a long unbroken shot on the beaches of Dunkirk surveying the wreck of the British army. One COULD construe this as the film furthering a religious allegory the film is trying to convey (the title does have religious implications) but from what Wright has shown us up to this point it doesn't really have anything to present beyond an impressive long unbroken shot. The proceedings aren't helped by several flat scenes with a grown up Briony played by the entirely average Romola Garai. The two actresses may look similar but Garai has none of Ronan's verve and spark.
I have no doubt that I'll enjoy reading the novel Atonement, but I'm disappointed the entire film couldn't stand on its own merit. Darn it all!

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