Tuesday, February 19, 2008
The Movie House As Confessional
I was finally able to see Joe Wright's Atonement during a layover in Los Angeles.
The story is set around the time of the Second World War, and involves a pair of young lovers (played by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy) whose lives, along with both their families', are sent into a tailspin by an emotionally-motivated accusation leveled by the woman's younger sister. This all occurs just at the moment the two lovers are coming to terms with their budding feelings for each other, a development requiring, in this case, overcoming the social gap between them--she is upper class, and he is the son of one of the family servants who is about to embark--at his master's (that is, his lover's fathers) expense--upon medical school. The young sister has a tempest of feelings for the man as well, made more complicated by her trans-pubescent inexperience.
This is the basic setup, and apart from a little twist at the end, the movie plays out pretty much in chronological order: the setup and the event itself--the accusation--followed by the aftermath. The movie spends most of its time in the aftermath, just as we live our whole lives with the consequences of something that may have taken only an instant to effect the change. The title refers to the young sister's attempt to expiate the wrong she has done and to cope with the far-reaching consequences. As it happens, this is a life's work. And the setup for these events is wonderfully done, so that you're on the edge of your seat for most of the movie, partly because events early in the film are shown from the viewpoint of the younger sister and then viewed with our adult eyes. So we begin with a bit of disorientation, and finish by sharing in the struggle to find clarity and resolution.
It's an epic story on a personal level, with obvious and much-noted similarities to Anthony Minghella's 1996 film The English Patient (which happens to be one of my favorite films). The emotionally-laden storyline is set amid world turmoil--in this case, WWII, into which the lovers and the accuser are drawn, though this fact, and the ultimate drama of war itself, is largely peripheral to the story. But it's this juxtaposition of the epic and the intimate, of the global and the personal, that gives a grand sweep to the film. The English Patient, the movie, was an adaptation from the Michael Ondaatje novel, made notable in part because the brilliant but quite disjointed book seemed so unlikely to translate well to film. But a good book makes a good story, and a good treatment of a good story makes a good movie, at least potentially. Likewise, Atonement comes from a 2001 novel of the same name by British writer Ian McEwan (which I've not read), and it sounds like a very faithful translation.
Director Wright--whose last project was 2005's Pride and Prejudice--has given us a film very like what Ismael Merchant and James Ivory specialized in: the characters and how they are developed and what transpires between them are the whole banana. I found a couple listener comments which lamented the film as "boring," from which I can only deduce that the man who would offer this opinion up--it's always a man--is a fucking emotional cripple (the internet never fails to put its crassest noise front and center). If Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay or network television have not killed that part of us that can be thrilled by an idea, this is a film that grabs us in some deep part of the brain and gives it a good shake. Say what you will, I just think boring is the wrong descriptor.
I did have one complaint, though a relatively minor one. It seems inherently difficult to me to have to cast two different women for the same role, that of the tattling younger daughter. In the beginning of the movie she is 13, and she appears later as a young woman of 18 or 20 (actually, it's three women, as she appears at story's end as an elderly woman; but the gap there is unavoidable). Wright has done as good a job as possible here, and the actresses do very well, but it still makes for a bit of discontinuity.
There are no such difficulties with the two romantic leads, Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, who are excellently cast. McAvoy is unfamiliar to me, but has an earnest everyman quality that plays well here. Knightley is either so hugely talented as to be able to pull off virtually anything, or she chooses her roles very well to suit her strengths. Physically, she's nearly as insubstantial as a ghost, but she seems always to have an emotional / sexual charge that gives her a commanding presence in every scene--as she did in Pride and Prejudice, in that case burning like a laser through oppressive layers of suffocating societal customs. Her scenes here with McAvoy here are perfectly played, and it's really her movie. The sister is atoning for her sin, but it's the lovers' story that unfolds on the screen.
In the end, I'm not sure I find the story quite as compelling as that of The English Patient. But this is a first-rate effort, a home run by any standard.