Saturday, October 1, 2011

On Romance, War, and Writing

Atonement (2007)

Based on novel: Atonement, by Ian McEwan

After developing somewhat of a crush on James McAvoy from X-Men: First Class, I couldn't resist the temptation to purchase the Atonement DVD that I saw on sale the very next day. Not realizing that this movie was based on an Ian McEwan novel (to my shame) I watched the movie first.

Plot (may contain spoilers):

Briony Tallis, a young writer, dreamer, and sister misunderstands the relationship between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and the well-educated son of the household help Robbie (James McAvoy). She interprets a sexually charged love letter as a sign of sexual perversion, and a hot and heavy library scene as molestation. Later she observes her cousin getting raped by an older man (friend of the family, head of a chocolate empire), and blames it on her sister's love. World War II breaks out, and the Tallis sisters serve as nurses, and Robbie goes to war. As Briony gets older, she realizes the damage she has done both to the life of this young man, and to her sister's happiness. For this youthful folly, she seeks atonement. This burning guilt extends over the course of her life.

Thoughts (also spoilers):

What drives me nuts about this movie is that Briony (the young girl, writer, and subtle protagonist) seemingly knows who the real rapist is, and refuses to see it. She is so emotionally driven, so entirely trusting in her emotional impulses, that she believes she has charged the right man, and has done the right thing. On some conscious level, it seems impossible that she would rather villainize an innocent man out of jealousy than stop a truly dangerous and despicable man (who will later marry Briony's cousin, the girl he raped). Yet, this happens. And this becomes the premise for the entire narrative. The nature of the crime, and the fact that the real criminal not only gets away with it, but somehow persuades the girl into marriage when she is an adult, angers me on so many levels.

Moving on to other observations... the fleetingly heated passion between Knightley and McAvoy is truly impressive. The sense of longing and romantic passion carries across the entire film, stemming from their briefly initiated and quickly disrupted love scene. I'd rather not give away the twist, but suffice it to say there are many levels of heartbreak between lovers, between siblings, and simply between human beings experiencing true human suffering in the war.

The cinematography is notable, including a much discussed five-minute long, single-shoot scene of the beach where the British soldiers are to be evacuated. The light is cloudy, the colour is filtered through a beige-ish screen, and the scene is slow, with the haunting image of a slow-moving, dust-covered, ferris wheel and merry-go-round, underscored by a slow, melancholic melody. Another haunting and beautiful moment is when Robbie is in Dunkirk, and encounters hazy, leavy, deeply saturated green trees and foliage, and underneath he finds dead, uniforned school girls, and as the camera slowly pans out, he sees many more lined up, row by row.


The acting is phenomenal and the scenes are beautiful. The simultaneous timelines illuminate the same scene twice through another character's eyes was incredible, as was the constant jumping back and forth in time, highlighting missing plot elements, and necessary flashbacks.

Atonement is tremendously moving, and while it leaves out no details, it still manages to leave so much more to the imagination.

5 Stars (*****)

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