Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Review: Atonement, dir. Joe Wright (2007; based on Ian McEwan's 2001 novel)

The film is at least half an hour too long and the second half is slow. The link between the war and what happened in the "enormous Victorian Gothic mansion" when Briony (the real star of the film, its hero and driving force) is 13 years old, is adeptly held until the stupid scene when Robbie Turner (James McEvoy) witnesses an atrocity.

The field under the fruit trees is covered with the corpses of dead schoolchildren. This sounds good and can be thought to link in nicely with the event that caused Robbie's trauma in the first place: Briony's dobbing him in to the police after the rape that followed the disappearance of the two little boys (Jackson and Pierrot Quincey).

But it doesn't work and just comes across as a pat canard launched at the German army, as if the exhortation not to forget were more important than the rhythm of McEwan's wonderful story. It should not be, as this horrid betrayal of the writer's artistic achievement shows. The heavy tear that swarms down Robbie's cheek on his discovery puts a dampener on the rest of the movie.

The real outstander for me was Benedict Camberbatch (who plays the dastardly Paul Marshall, the chocolate manufacturer), who appeared most recently in the wonderful Amazing Grace (where he memorably played William Pitt the Younger). His lascivious restraint is riveting; you can almost feel him undress the fey (but slightly vulgar) Lola Quincey (Juno Temple).

Romola Garai (who was also good in Amazing Grace and splendid in Angel) plays (very well) Briony at 18 years. She is in a hospital. But the scene where she comforts the dying Frenchman is nowhere near as good here, as it was in the book. There, you feel tremendous fear and revulsion as the man's bandage is wound off his shattered skull. Here, it looks like a side-show curiosity.

The contents of Robbie's lustful letter, too, are handled here differently. They are far more visible. This caused guffaws in the theatre (Bondi Junction Greater Union).

This theatre is in the splendid Westfield complex, newly rebuilt. As a boy, I went often to shop and socialise at the Junction. This new structure, however, reminds me more than anything of the opulent shopping centres found in swish Tokyo suburbs. I think there is nothing like it anywhere else in Australia.

Tickets can be purchased at the sort of video terminals found near airport check-in counters. But if you use a machine to buy tickets, they cost more; ours were $16 each.

Joe Wright also worked with Keira Knightley (who plays Cecilia Tallis, Briony's elder sister) on the very good Pride and Prjudice, In fact, she is more suited to this role, in a film set in Britain in 1935. As a slender beauty of the Regency period (1811 - 1820), she seems a bit glabrous.

Atonement can be considered a revenge fantasy. But it's not the revenge of Cecilia and Robbie that's important. These two hot bods reminded me of nothing else more than Van and Ada in Nabokov's 1969 blockbuster (actually his highest achievement, the kind of novel only a successful writer at the very top of his game can bring off), Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.

In that book, the underdog sister (Lucette) commits suicide by jumping off a cruise ship's deck into the ocean because Van ignores her, and spurns her love. Here, it is the underdog sister who prevails (Vanessa Redgrave plays the older Briony, shown being interviewed for a TV show following the publication of her 22nd novel).

Art triumphs over physical passion. McEwan celebrates Nabokov's vision 32 years after the fact. It is fitting that Juno Temple has red hair. Lucette had it too.

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