Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Atonement Revisited

When I first saw Atonement, all the way back in September (Britain got it a few months earlier than America and most other countries), I was fresh off having read (and loved) the book- as usual with books that aren't prescribed parts of my course these days, it was only because they were making a film out of it that I read it. Naturally, the issue with watching a film of a book you've read is that you're naturally going to make comparisons- but reading the book so close to watching the film is possibly unadvisable, because it makes you even more prone to paper over the film's omissions (which are often necessary or effective ones) with pages that are still living vivid life in your memory. Characters seem more than they are because the versions the book and film offer up to you are different things- not a problem, perhaps, when watching at a studied distance, but the character of Cecilia, say, who was granted a greater deal of interiority than the film affords her, seemed less rounded and human on a second, more removed viewing than she did initially, because in my head first go round was still the Cecilia from the book.

Trying to make a truly faithful version of a book is always a mistake, really, because, as with plays, the whole thing generally comes off as too stilted, too formal and constrained, because you get the sense that the filmmakers are ignoring any possible artistry in an attempt to portray exactly what the book gives you. Atonement does not have this problem, because Joe Wright, its director, does not let it. This isn't to say, though, that it's not seeking to be faithful to the book in a disadvantageous way- it just goes an entirely different route towards achieving it. We learnt from Pride and Prejudice's famous circuitous long-take around the rural family home that Wright is a director often prone to flashiness- but here, with Atonement, he seems too often to go slightly overboard. He may not be keen to tell us the story, so to speak, but he is intent on showing it to us, and all too often his visual attempts to do so seem overbearing and unsubtle. Grone-inducing visual metaphors like Cecilia (Keira Knightley) diving into the swimming pool cutting sharply to Robbie (James McAvoy) sliding up from under his bath water, or the insistent close-ups of that infamous word that wasn't meant to be seen being typed across our screen, sit uncomfortably alongside the classical style Wright favours for most of the film- most egregious, possibly, is his reversing flashback of Robbie and Cecilia's separation, to not mention his infamous five and a half minute tracking shot around Dunkirk, which seems to serve no other purpose that proving it can be done. Dario Marianelli's score is for the most part delicate and effectively melancholic, but the typewriter sounds that spark up on young Briony's (Saoirse Ronan) appearances- which undoubtably are what won him the Oscar- are jarring and altogether too poundingly insistent. And Christopher Hampton's script is too often as unsubtle as Wright himself- particularly, it has to be said, in the coda, for which I previously placed too much blame on Vanessa Redgrave, but it's really the fault of having what was in the book revealed by a first person narration but is here forced to be revealed in one long, overt speech.

Atonement's productional credentials are generally faultless- impeccably-created sets, good costume work, ecetera- but ultimately the whole thing does feel a bit empty because there is barely an actual character to identify with. Robbie and Cecilia, even moreso than they were in the novel, are less humans than idealized romantic fiction, and, while that is the point that McEwan ultimately makes, he also invested time and energy into the pairing, using their perspectives to eschew the possibility of making them into ciphers for Briony's atonement. It's harder to pull off different perspectives on film without being overly explicit, and, even while spending most time with Briony, Wright refrains from actually entering any of the characters heads, and this means that the film loses any chance to understand either Robbie or Cecilia, leaving both McAvoy and Knightley asea amid clipped British accents and creaseless formal clothing. Obviously Briony is more of a rounded character, but here it's more a case of the actors letting the side down- Romola Garai is easily the best here, redemptive and haunted as her eighteen year-old Briony struggles with nurse training and contacting her estranged sister, but Saoirse Ronan, much-praised as the younger incarnation of Briony, works too hard to try pull off the adult-acting aspect of her character, which, in one of the novel's clearest ironies, is all a fallacy anyway. Ronan is good at portraying Briony's slightly lofty attitudes, but she's a tad too vacant, lacking any edge in her clearly-meant-to-be-meaningful stares out of the window, and not nearly as good at underlining the empathic moments of Briony as Garai is. And Redgrave, stuck as she is with that expositionary coda, works like a trooper to inject some emotion into her face as Wright holds steady on her close-up, but, not only is she undermined by an understandable but still foolish choice to have her basically look like an overgrown Ronan (same hair cut, swamping dress), there's just little she can do to make the words seem less deadeningly unrealistic than they are.

Atonement works, maybe, as the sweeping period romance that you feel the Academy probably took it for, but as the more subtle depiction of the devastating effect of falsehoods and misunderstandings the book proves itself to be, the film fails. There's no real sense of tragedy in Robbie and Cecilia's separation because they're never relatable, sympathetic characters. Indeed, the film's best moments belong entirely to Garai, as she depicts the tragedy she unknowingly did to herself- rather lamely sitting by a French soldier's bedside, unsure whether to go along with his delirious 'remembrances' of her; but especially in the film's coup-d'etat, Briony's confrontation with Robbie and Cecilia. Nathaniel highlighted this line reading in his recent awards, but it bears repeating for just how perfectly Garai captures Briony's wretched regret, her pathetic apology coming out as if she knows how redundant it will seem. It's a superb performance in a film that doesn't seem to want one, more concerned with the tragic romance and directorial flashiness than telling the story that McEwan told. C+


Cal said...

I must say I haven't read the book, and I probably would have a different view of the film had I done so. As it happens I loved it, and for many of the reasons you criticised.

Firstly, I love the way that the score aligns with the film's drama and tension, the typing bits appearing in the most intense moments. Effective, I thought, because when it does come in, it's powerful and appropriate. It didn't feel stuck in for the sake of it to me.

I will admit that a lot of the visual flamboyance seems quite indulgent. The thing about romantic epics is that that's what people expect. I must say I swooned at the shot of Cecilia outside the green dress in the police arrest scene. A lot of it is very gratuitous, but I don't feel as if it detracts from what I know about the characters, which isn't an incredible amount, but as deep a characterisation as many other films of this ilk an afford, that were less keen to flaunt their aesthetics.

I don't get the Garai thing either. She has by far the baitiest role and does very little with it for me. Wright's direction in this segment of the film is as good as his showy stuff at the beginning and the end because I think it demonstrates both the facelessness of her shame (I'm thinking the body shots in the hospital) and the methodical nature of her character that follows Ronan's great introduction to Briony. I think Garai can quiver and look sorry, but as a character I didn't think she revealed a lot about what she might have been thinking in the period of time that elapsed between the arrest and the war.

Dave said...

I didn't think the score was entirely worthless, but for me it was far too jarring- soothing, soft music for Cecilia cuts abruptly to slamming keypads for Briony, and while I can see the value in the contrast, I just found the typing too overbearing to cope with the sudden shifts. Plus, I found it less aligned to dramatic situations than simply to Briony herself, which seemed a bit pandering.

I have no problem with showing things like the green dress in that shadowy lighting, but my problem lay with Wright's overt flashiness, the main part sticking out for me being the flashback to the arrest that he runs backwards. It didn't help with characterization in any way, other than showing us what was surely very obvious simply from McAvoy and Knightley's haunted expressions- that they wish they could turn back time. Wright was too prone to spell out things in some kind of visual metaphor that were already blatantly obvious.

(If Garai had the baitiest role, why did no one ever mention her in awards season?) I can see your point about not revealing what she'd have thought about in the intervening period, but that's not Garai's fault- it's the script's, and, now that I think about it, the book's too (a rare failing of McEwan's I overlooked). Obviously she had a major shift in how she saw herself, though, and I think Garai was very good at taking Ronan's physical performance and showing how growth and mental maturation has changed her. I didn't see her as menthodical at all- nervy, wavering, unsure of herself, and Garai pulled that off beautifully. The two major scenes I mentioned are superbly played because they reveal how Briony's empathic soul has been damaged by her mistakes, so now she has to force herself to reach out, even if in both cases her impulses to help and heal are entirely justified (whereas before they were of course led unconsciously by jealousy and pettiness).

What did you think of Redgrave's section, by the way?

Cal said...

Well Garai has the most sympathetic part in the film. That nobody mentioned her in awards season is probably because she has so little impact compared to Ronan, who I think is much better.

I was really impressed with Redgrave. Her delivery of that monologue killed me, which again makes me so perplexed about Ruby Dee's nomination above her. They're in their films around the same length but Redgrave has so much more effect. How strange the Academy are!

But back to Atonement. What did you think of the use of the typing in the church? I loved the severity of it. Oh, and I really liked that they did the library and fountain scenes twice, since they were the moments that shaped Briony's judgement of Robbie.

Dave said...

Well, I doubt we're going to reach any kind of agreement on Ronan v. Garai, so I'll leave that be. (I culd argue all night, but that won't get me anywhere. And I have Margot at the Wedding to see.)

I can certainly agree on your point about Dee. As I said in my review, I didn't like the actual monologue Redgrave was delivering but I see that she was quite good at doing so- whereas Dee barely left an impression (not really her fault, but still...). But I wouldn't have given Dee's spot to Regrave- someone like Jennifer Garner or Kelly Macdonald (now THERE'S a small performance worth talking about!) was much more deserving.

I can certainly see the merit of using the typing in the church- memories flooding back as she realizes what really happens, etc. I did like the effect of doing the scenes twice, since it shows what Briony saw as opposed to what actually happened (obviously very important), although what I said about Robbie and Cecilia not having an actual POV still stands. But as omnisciently-viewed scenes, they're very well done (have to say, I loved Knightley's delivery in the fountain scene- "You idiot!" is so brash and haughty).