Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Movie Review: Atonement

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a screening of the new film Atonement with James McAvoy, Keira Knightley and Romola Garai through the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It was so worth the money I spent on joining the Society, let me tell you.

Before the movie, I had a quick glass of wine at P.J. Clarke's at Lincoln Center which is this old fashioned looking bar and restaurant. The original is on the East Side on 55th Street and 3rd Avenue, where's it been since the early part of the last century. It's owned now by a consortium which includes Timothy Hutton, and they've opened two branches, one downtown in the financial district and one near Lincoln Center.

I had a nice of glass of reisling and the Oysters Rockefeller which contained a little too much spinach for my liking and I adore spinach. I had to dig through to find the oyster and the bottom, and they weren't exactly meaty which might explain all the greenage on my plate. It's kind of pricey but the bartenders are way cute, although it reminded me of that scene in Boys on the Side where Mary Louise Parker laments that after 5 years of Happy Hour, she'd only managed to go home with the bartenders.

Now to Atonement. I haven't read the Ian McEwen novel on which it's based, but now I definitely want to, just to fill in the gaps. Here's the description from Yahoo! Movies: In 1935, 13-year-old fledgling writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) and her family live a life of wealth and privilege in their enormous mansion. On the warmest day of the year, the country estate takes on an unsettling hothouse atmosphere, stoking Briony's vivid imagination. Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the educated son of the family's housekeeper, carries a torch for Briony's headstrong older sister Cecilia (Kiera Knightley). Cecilia, he hopes, has comparable feelings; all it will take is one spark for this relationship to combust. When it does, Briony - who has a crush on Robbie - is compelled to interfere, going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. Cecilia and Robbie declare their love for each other, but he is arrested - and with Briony bearing false witness, the course of three lives is changed forever. Briony continues to seek forgiveness for her childhood misdeed. Through a terrible and courageous act of imagination, she finds the path to her uncertain atonement, and to an understanding of the power of enduring love.

Well that's in in a nutshell. I had a hard time with this movie partly because I wasn't that innocent when I was 13, and I had to remember that 1935 was a different time, and that young girls like Briony wouldn't really know what to do with their budding feelings of sexuality. In fact, if I hadn't heard someone say that she was 13, I would have thought she was a lot younger, because she acted like she was no more than 10 or 11, while her cousin Lola is clearly a budding Lolita, who ends up seduced by a friend of Briony's brother Leon, which Briony mistakes for someone else. Briony is not the only one who has to atone for what's she done. Lola knows who her seducer is but lets Robbie take the blame, so that know one would know that she was a willing participant, and Paul Marshall wouldn't have gotten in trouble for seducing a minor.

The movie also exposes the class system in England. Cecilia and Briony's father had paid to put Robbie through college, but the minute he's accused of rape, they automatically assume that he must be guilty because he's lower class. There's never an inkling of doubt apart from Cecilia who believes in Robbie's innocence.

The jumping around in time and perspective took some getting used to as well. The audience sees certain scenes from both Briony's point of view and Cecelia and Robbie's. I also knew where the film was going at certain points, although there were still some surprises which I won't spoil here.

I think Keira Knightley is an incredibly beautiful actress but it was painful to look at her in her evening gown because she's so thin. Seriously, I just wanted to force feed her a hamburger. There's naturally thin and then there's bordering on emaciation, and she's about crossed the line. I thought she was cast perfectly in the role of Cecilia but for me the heart of the film is James McAvoy. His performance is full of passion and yearning, for Cecilia and for the life that was stolen from him by Briony. He's amazing and his range is incredible. When I think of his cocky Tom Lefroy, and now Robbie, and his role in Last King of Scotland, he' s a major talent.

And a sweetheart too. There was a Q&A after the movie with Christopher Hampton, the screenwriter, and James where he talked about his performance and making the film. He was so charming and funny, and a real gentleman. He actually apologized for taking the piss out of audience member who complained that the film became too melodramatic at the end. It was interesting to hear that Christopher Hampton literally had to audition for Ian McEwan (the author of the novel) for the job of writing the screenplay. Apparently McEwan, as one of the producers, had approval over who got the job. Luckily Christopher Hampton was approved, he was able to preserve the romantic atmosphere of the movie without it becoming too sentimental whereas Tom Stoppard might have been too cynical.

Adapting a book is always tricky. Most authors accept that when they take the money to have their book adapted, they have no control over what turns up on screen. Some authors, like Meg Cabot, have a wonderful sense of humor about it. Some, like Anne Rice, don't. The book will always exist, and hopefully viewers after seeing the movie, like myself, will be curious to read the book. I actually ended up enjoying Unbearable Lightness of Being when I read it, and I hated the movie. And I thought Prince of Tides was a much better book then what Barbra Streisand did to it.

What grade do I give this film? Well I have to give it a B+. At times it just felt too long, like the sequences in France around Dunkirk just seemed to go on for days. And I wasn't always convinced of the relationship with Cecilia and Robbie. It seemed forced, like the actors had no real chemistry, which is strange since James McAvoy said they had 3 weeks to rehearse. It might be because they spend so much time apart in the film, and because their relationship is never able to fully develop. Still it's worth it to see it for James McAvoy's performance as well as the young actress who plays Briony at 13.

Thanks for reading,


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