09 December 2007

Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume.

I'll be shocked if "Atonement" doesn't get nominated for best picture. The movie completely exceeded my expectations (which were pretty high to begin with) and, nine hours later, I'm still thinking about some of its arresting images and the mechanics of the plot.

Without giving anything away for those of you who haven't read the book, the movie begins in summer 1935 on a country estate in England. Thirteen-year-old Briony (played by newcomer Saoirse Ronan, who is incredible here) and her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley, who surprised me and impressed me a lot) are trying to stay cool in the long afternoon before their older brother comes home for a visit. In the course of that afternoon, Briony, to steal a line used in the film, "sees something that she doesn't understand, but she thinks she does," the consequences of which will change her life, Cecilia's life, and the life of the family groundskeeper Robbie (James McAvoy), who once studied at Cambridge with Cecilia.

I thought this movie did a great job of adapting the book but went above and beyond the (impeccable) source material with arresting visuals (Briony in a white dress, creeping through a dark house), intricate camera work and the symphonic but never heavy-handed score by Dario Marianelli. My greatest fear going in was that this movie would hew very closely to the conventions of costume drama, and I'm happy to report that this was not the case. The costumes were beautiful, but they worked in service to the story. I've seen a few two-hour movies in the past year, but this is the first one for which I can say, there is not a shot, not a moment here that is wasted. I have to give credit for that to director Joe Wright, whose adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" I liked but is working on a whole new level here.

I already can't wait to see "Atonement" again. If you've seen the movie, I'm leaving a few spoiler-ish notes in the comments, because there is so much about this movie I am burning to talk about. Hopefully it will expand to wide-release soon, so you all can see it.

Photo: NY Post movie blog


Ellen said...




While I don't totally believe that Briony would have the same haircut all her life, I thought there was a great visual match between Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai (Briony at 18, and an actress I always think is underrated) and Vanessa Redgrave at the end. And I don't have words to describe those final scenes with Vanessa Redgrave at the end during the interview. My theatre was entirely silent; none of us could bear to move. I'm sure we'll hear Oscar buzz about her, even though she was in this movie about as much as Judi Dench was in "Shakespeare in Love."

The New York review talked about how James McAvoy projected a special sort of innocence during this movie, and I don't completely buy that, but I thought his performance as well was really good. I don't think he'll get an Oscar nod, though, because so much of what made his section in France great was the camera work and the visual awesomeness. Take that scene at Dunkirk with the long, long, LONG pan where he goes past the horses and to the choir and past the Ferris wheel and to the movies. I was sitting there with my mouth open the whole time. I liked that section so much, I didn't even mind that the script had him basically announce he was going to die. (He died in a Shakespearean way, right?)

Also, I would have liked it if they had made Paul Marshall a little less menacing in the beginning. I thought that scene with him and Lola worked great as a stand-alone, but given that he may have later raped and then married her, it just doesn't make sense.

The point I knew the movie was really working: When we see the fountain scene for the second time, through Cecilia's perspective. That's when I knew this wasn't going to be just a lush period piece, that Wright was able to step out of that convention and show that to us from two different angles to set up what's to come. And it fit so perfectly into the film, just like the next time they do it, with Cecilia and Robby in the library. I knew what happened but I was on pins and needles, waiting.

The moment I knew I had to see it again: When Briony goes to Cecilia's flat (a scene she turns out to have made up), I thought, "Huh, I didn't remember that being in the book, but I'll go with it." They fooled me. They completely fooled me.

And finally, the one image that I really can't get out of my head: When we find out Keira has been killed in the Blitz and we see her floating in the tunnel. Okay, so it reminded me of the raft scene in "Titanic," but wow. Just wow.

I hope someone eventually reads this comment, as I feel rather silly leaving it on my own blog. (Also, why is it so funny when British people say "rather"?)

Travis Erwin said...

Haven't seen the movie yet so I skipped your comment, but I loved the book and can't wait to catch the adaptation.

Marjorie said...

Ellen! I read your comment, because I saw the movie last night! I went with a group of six, and somewhat to my surprise not everyone liked it much--the two people who were the least moved were also the two who hadn't read the book; I don't know whether that says more about how the movie works when you don't have the book in your head, or just about whether it appeals to people who aren't interested in Ian McEwan novels.

Nevertheless, I was very impressed and quite disarmed by it; at the end I was left staring into the distance thinking "does it matter what anybody feels?" It had the crucial relentlessness of the book, I think, the terrible steamrolling of everybody by circumstances. Plus the trio of Briony performers were, as you say, brilliant, and the score was absolutely perfect.

What do you mean by "they fooled me" above, by the way? I thought that scene was rather close to the book...

Ellen said...

It had been a while since I'd read the book, and so when we arrived at Cecilia's flat I thought, "Weird, I don't remember this from the book... but maybe I had just forgotten about it." I knew Robbie and Cecilia's fates, but I didn't remember elder-Briony's big reveal, so I experienced a little of the shock that people who went into the movie cold must have felt.

That's the magic of the movies, I guess.