Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Nothing (and Everything) To Atone For - ATONEMENT

I have, for time to time, cast a certain prejudice against those prestigious British costume dramas that have become fairly ubiquitous with arthouse cinema over the last 20 years or so. Anything from E.M. Forester or Jane Austin suggests to me a certain type of picture that I know will be well made, well acted, be full of intelligence and great drama and will in no way whatsoever have any meaning to me. These pictures can be fine works of cinematic art, but my identification with most of them is a big, fat zero. While I recognize that tales British class struggles are often meant to represent the greater society at large, I almost never get that feeling while I’m watching them. For the most part, there’s an almost cookie-cutter assembly that these types of films follow: The upper class family comes up against lower class types, usually in the shape of a romance between two young lovers, and at some point there’s a murder or the law gets involved or something and Maggie Smith almost always shows up. Like the most standard of martial arts films, these pictures tend to write themselves; clichés are clichés, no matter what the genre.

What I liked about Joe Wright’s ATONEMENT is that at the beginning it’s a lot like this, too, but things then take a turn and it becomes totally unlike a lot of those films. The trailer gives most of it away (which I won’t), but ATONEMENT is basically a very well-done love story that is a heck of a lot more on top of that. I knew once the c-word became an essential part of the plot that things weren't going to be typical, and as ATONEMENT kept going it kept doing its own thing and I was doubly pleased and relieved that it wasn't going to be the typical Brit prestige pic. I suppose it's a bit like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, in that you've got a tragic romance under a WWII backdrop, but that only came to mind long after viewing the film, never once while I was watching it. And I think it's a better film overall (and I quite liked THE ENGLISH PATIENT).

So even though the thing opens on Friday (at least in major cities), I'm not looking to give too much ATONEMENT away because I feel it works better the less you know about it. Speaking in very general terms, it's a film I like very much; the acting is excellent across the board, with a great lead performance by James McAvoy, and so is Wright's direction. This is going to push him onto the director's A-List and deservedly so, as it's filled with some beautifully unforgettable imagery, especially a seduction scene between McAvoy and Kiera Knightly and a masterful tracking shot that (according to Wright, who spoke after the screening I attended) was created more out of budget necessity than design (the mark of a skilled director, I say). And even though this is based on a novel by Ian McEwan, I felt that the subject matter of ATONEMENT was one well worth delving into on film. Atoning for your past mistakes is something that comes to us all and McEwan's story is a powerful enough one to move the toughest of moviegoers. Said story is expertly adapted by Christopher Hampton, and that brings me to the other part of ATONEMENT that I was impressed with - its professionalism. This is a film made with few wrong turns; no one does sub par work and they're all more or less at the top of their game. Beyond just being intelligent, ATONEMENT's filmmakers were smart about how to tell this particular story and when you're watching it there's almost never a feeling that something could have been done better. I'm not sure I'd call it all great filmmaking, but it's 100% solid and that can be better than great at times. Slick professionalism can feel like greatness sometimes just by being so impressive and ATONEMENT feels like that to me. It's an impressive feat all around and if the big awards shows decide to honor it (and I get this feeling they will) then it won't be undeserved.

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