Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Review: "Atonement"

I'll be perfectly honest. I read "Atonement" by Ian McEwan two summers ago, and even with a four-year degree in pounding down boring ass English novels in five or six days, this chunk o' lit took me about five or six weeks. "Atonement" the novel took a lot out of me. I cried, and I spent many nights astounded at the sheer gravity one author can unleash, and I'll admit that, when I heard that Joe Wright was going to turn it into a movie, I cringed. If you've ever read McEwan, you know that about 99.9% of his writing is a swelling mass of descriptive prose, and that dialogue is used so very sparingly that every last letter in quotation marks has a story all its own. So, naturally, I cringed. I laughed, as well. But then, when I heard that Keira Knightly was going to play Celia Tallis, I graduated that cringe to an eyebrow raise, because, strangely enough, I had always pictured Celia Tallis to look just like Keira Knightly. Then the movie came out, and each moment of drama, each crescendo and decrescendo of music and dialogue and rolling, English landscape was exactly as I'd always imagined it would be. I was breathless. The score alone was enough to win me over, a masterful concoction of typewriter clicks and violins, but, of course, "Atonement" doesn't peak at its score. It doesn't peak at all, actually, because just like the book, it has no peak--just a heart-wrenching vortex into which each of its characters helplessly plummets.

As a film alone, "Atonement" is cruel and ravishing, its rarest beauty coming in the forms of James McAvoy and Keira Knightly who bring so much blatant heartbreak to their roles that it's difficult to look away. I am supremely disappointed that neither earned nods from our beloved Academy; though, I can't say that I'm surprised. How can we go a year without nominating Kate Blanchett for yet another schmultzy period drama in which she plays some iconic figure from history? Knightly's exclusion from the Best Actress category is preposterous; however, nowhere near as preposterous as McAvoy's exclusion from the Best Actor category. Saoirse Rhonan's nomination is also somewhat preposterous, as its the only performance nomination at all for "Atonement."

It doesn't matter, however, because this is quite a remarkable film. It's lush and romantic, dark with intermittent patches of deceptive light. It begins in aristocratic England, circa WWII. Thirteen year old Briony is our protagonist--or shall we say antagonist?--whose naive misunderstanding spins her life, and the lives of big sister Celia and servant's son Robbie, into a pit of despair. The misunderstanding is epic, and it cannot be put into words with due justice. I'll only say that there's a fountain, a library, and a certain four letter word. But that's all that I'll say, because that is, in fact, all that it takes.

Because I'd read the book, I often found myself combing each scene, making sure that not one important element was lost. But this was completely pointless, because much unlike my initial predictions for the film, "Atonement" is a dazzling adaptation of what many may have found to be a previously-unadaptable novel. Its stars may have been screwed by a pity-party Academy, but as a finished product, it is a sheer work of art.

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