Sunday, February 17, 2008

Storywh0re's Oscar Best Picture Series - Atonement (spoiler warning)

This being Valentine's weekend, it seemed obvious to resume my Oscar series with the most obvious love story of the bunch--Atonement.

The story begins on a sweltering sumer day at an English country estate, a few years before the advent of WWII. An attraction is building between Cecilia Tallis, the young daughter of the family that lives there, and Robbie Turner, the housekeeper's educated son. Cecilia's younger sister Briony, a budding writer of 13, has a crush of her own on Robbie.

If you have seen the trailer, you know that Briony walks in on an intimate encounter between Robbie and Cecilia, then accuses Robbie of something he didn't do, causing him to be sent to prison and then to war. However, I was surprised that Briony's accusation actually has nothing to do with Cecilia.

The first few scenes of the movie feel disjointed, and the dialog sounds unnatural. As the movie progresses, it pulls together and smooths out a bit. Some confusing things are done with the timeline at the beginning. In the last fifteen minutes we learn that the whole story has been told through an internal narrative device. That device skips so far into the future of the characters, without preamble, that it is at once ingenious and excessively jarring.

All three of the actresses playing Briony at different ages are fantastic. Young Briony and her cousin Lola are wonderfully precocious—probably typical for their context. Some of the best acting in the movie is from James McAvoy. He brings a moving portrayal to the already endearing character of Robbie. Keira Knightly's cold and imperious Cecilia is less likable. It is unclear why Robbie loves her, aside from possibly her beauty; in spite of the injustice she suffers, she has few sympathetic characteristics aside from being in love. The best thing I can say about this pairing? I'll never see library bookshelf ladders the same way again.

As far as the technical aspects of the film, I would not be the first writer to mention the brilliant way that the score incorporates the sound of a typewriter. I also noticed that at several points, the music comes together with the movie itself in one sound. There is some very interesting cinematography--shots around corners and through doors and up stairwells. The rural scenes are beautiful, and the clashing textures and patterns in the manor house express a lot about the family. There is also some striking imagery in the war scenes; this is not, however, a war movie at heart, and I'd say its less disturbing than something like Saving Private Ryan.

Honestly, the technical aspects of this movie are probably the reason to see this film, if at all. If you're looking for a romantic movie to share with a date—or with a pint of Ben and Jerry's—you can do better. Briony is right—the true ending to the lover's saga does feel kind of pointless. Unfortunately, the fact that she chooses to tell a different story doesn't help the audience of Atonement as much as it helps her. I left feeling that the war was the bigger injustice, the thing that really kept Cecilia and Robbie apart; and Briony's own fate only goes to show that everything evens out in the end.

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