Friday, September 21, 2007


Not due out until Christmastime stateside but currently playing to a glowing reception in the United Kingdom is Atonement, director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwen’s bestselling novel. It’s a love saga framed around WWII; the first half takes place during the onset and the second during Britain’s retreat from France in 1944. In essence, it’s a weepie about two lovers separated by the horrors of war. But it’s more than that; the relationships and the circumstances are quite complicated and best not to reveal too much about their myriad complexities.

Following his exquisite adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 2005, Joe Wright’s direction may just be the most invigorating quality to be added to the period piece love story since colorization. Instead of succumbing to the standard period piece feeling of constantly keeping the viewer at arm’s length, his films are rendered accessible through their vitality and immediacy. With Pride and Prejudice, he incorporated fast moving but controlled camerawork that threw the viewer headfirst into the life and times of Jane Austen’s characters. But his skilled camerawork isn’t all, he also has a keen ear for musical score, a talent for casting and a graceful pacing that makes his films feel substantial while kept within reasonable running times.

In Atonement, he plays around with temporal continuity in a manner most uncommon to the period piece and more akin to the nonlinearity of Tarrantino. Key events are seen multiple times from differing vantage points but it’s not a gimmick, rather it’s a thematic accommodation. At times Atonement is a bit too stylish for its own good: it’s hard to feel the emotional impact of a field of murdered children while we’re marveling over the craftsmanship of a majestic tracking shot. However, there is a single extreme long take (of such considerable length and scope that it rivals the much heralded shot in Children of Men) that is one of the greatest shots of the year, awe-inspiring in terms of narrative attachment and formal impressiveness as it simultaneously conveying the bleak expansiveness of the British army soldiers awaiting a return home and baffling the viewer through the sheer patience and skill required to pull off such a shot.

The film’s ending is somewhat problematic. Emotionally stirring to be sure but it tries too hard to satisfy both viewer camps: the romantics and the realists. In a way the filmmakers are guilty of wanting to have their cake and eat it too. While I don’t think that I just saw the Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscar ceremony (as some pundits are already predicting it to be), I did see a film of remarkable character. A synthesis of devastating pain and immense entertainment; prestige filmmaking and populist cinema.

1 comment:

John said...

Good to hear you liked it... I'm seeing "Juno" and "No Country for Old Men" next week... have you seen either yet?