13 December 2007

Review: Atonement

Genre: Drama (Historical) / Romance

Atonement, if you remember correctly, reader, was the last film on my list of Most Eagerly Anticipated Films of 2007. I called it almost a sure thing, to be recognized by the major awards associations as one of the year's best films, not only because of its sweeping historical romance or its talented cast and crew, but also because it seemed to be built on a genuinely good premise. It is needless to say, my dear reader, that these are thing which I no longer believe.
Atonement was the second time Mr. Wright, the director, has sought to revitalize and restore a much gone over and much regurgitated storyline. His primary effort, the brilliant Pride & Prejudice (2005), accomplished the task completely and, apart from four Academy Award nominations, including two for collaborators who returned to work with the director in his sophomore try, the film garnered a clean A- from this blogger, who still thinks very highly of the work. The sophomore attempt meanwhile barely cleared the hurdle of decency and should consider itself very lucky if it garner any similar critical praise at all (with at most two exceptions). Weak where it should have been strong, chapped where it should have been fluid, and tranquil where it should have been passionate, the film was a clattering of high-gloss, silver-polished banalities and stale, brittle by rote recitations. Clearly the whole thing could have been marginally re-edited and out would have popped The English Patient or another such high-brow, 'seriously dramatic' drudgery, where the combination of stifled ambiances with cloistered musings, pitched against a backdrop of war, apparently indicate a sort of badge of merit. Where was the burning love that was supposed? Prove it me. Where was the coruscating passion made winnowingly the elegiac sense of loss? Play it me. Where was the thetical binding of all the various parts of the film by common cause and argument (more than just "Let us take responsibility as best we can for our actions")? Persuade it me. At the absolute least let me feel something, for I so badly wanted to find that singular redemptive feature of the work for which I could say, indeed, it was not a great work but at least there was this ___; but there was no such thing.
Mr. Marionelli's score was gimmicky at best. Sounding like no more of an effort than a grafting on or substituting in of the mechanical sounds of a typewriter where percussion used to be, the theme was a huge step down from the glowing tones of his Pride & Prejudice score. Ms. Knightley's performance had too that reissued feeling, not of her own previous work but the work of another actress in a similar past role, except her performance was certainly a lot duller. She barely spoke or appeared in other than a state of subdued consternation and her torrid romance with the groundskeeper boy that figured so much in the storyline felt hardly as sincere and credible as it was meant to be. The costumes and art direction were spiffy at best, and the cinematography slathered the whole thing other in either the tones and lighting of a Clinique commercial or the overly painterly hues of a person who's trying to hard. And God help the screenplay, whose feeble foundation is likely the cause of most of this horrible distress. Fluffy, erratic, and too coy for its own good, the play moved along as though it were in the process of trying to deliver a whopping punchline that would set all its initial potential misgivings right and astound the general public and film-making industry alike but, instead, could only muster a vague sort of toddle towards the truth (which to everyone was glaringly self-evident from the very start and title). I mean, it wraps up with Ms. Redgrave's Briony Tallis' speech as smugly as though it had just nailed the final answer on Jeopardy's Tournament of Champions and elucidated the shocking reality of what had happened to its characters for the apparently confused and still puzzling audience. I gathered that we, the audience, were supposed to feel first gratified that the record of the tumultuous and impetuous first night would be set straight by the young Nurse Briony, then suddenly betrayedly upset by the news that the aforementioned restoration never occurred and because of death C and Robbie's love never had had the chance to survive, and finally recomforted by the small, exceedingly passive reprieve Briony has granted them in her last novel. Well, what a presumptuous iteration of crap that is. The awkward shiftings and the extremely distant atmosphere sapped any and all emotion from that restorative scene; the blatantly obvious descent into physical and mental unfocus swiftly undercut any inkling that Robbie might have survived the war; and the meager and not-to-mention fictional deliverance of C and Robbie into a place of happiness (which cannot for the consistently realistic, almost legally so, nature of the film be construed as their afterlives) is nowhere near the gracious and gravitous atonement one would expect of a Briony who has committed her whole life toward correcting her (entirely understandable) youthful mistake.
Still Ms. Redgrave strives to make the most out of it, and her chronological counterparts do their individual bests as well to wrap themselves around the bizarrely square character they share. For the flightiness of her innocence as a youth, Ms. Ronan has the least arduous task and makes the most of it. Her performance is noteworthy, as is Mr. MacAvoy's, who by his talents as an actor manages to effect cohesion and depth out of his almost exiguous Robbie. Hybridizing his flat and cold public personality of politeness, practicality, and honor and his fanciful and jejune private one of playfulness, day-dreaming, and young-male sexual urgency, MacAvoy invents a three-dimensionality in Robbie that is wholly credible for the character's identity; and he reacts consistently in such a way that maintains this hybridized interlacing of his character. He is postured but to a point and he is furious in reaction toward young Briony's manifested rescue scenario. He is playful but not beyond decorum and he brings home the two lost young boys with one on his shoulders. He is sexual but still respectable and he only slowly steps away to right himself, back turned to camera, when discovered in coitus with Ms. Knightley's C. It is a smart, real understanding of a person, a living current beneath the placid surface; and his lines are the only ones that felt emotionally actual and unrehearsed. His work and Ms. Ronan's are probably the only truly redeeming features in the film.
Ugh, by now I just feel exhausted by the whole affair, as if I'd just been trying to issue a considered opinion on onion preserves. (The implications of the stagnant, bland, and disappointingly predictable content of that simile were not unintentional.) Now I'm just anxious to see whether any established film authority will see it in the same way I have, or will the 'serious grandeur' of it all overdouse them into praise?

Grade: C+

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