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Monday, February 25, 2008

Film Review: Atonement -- Britflick in a Blender

Atonement could have been made by no other people than the British, and it's fitting that it won the BAFTA award. Pity that it is so fatally flawed. Essentially the film feels like every British movie cliche in a blender -- cheerfully cynical cockney war buddy, ornate country mansion, class barriers, snotty kids, World War II, etc. etc. Unfortunately no one actually turns the blender on so rather than pureeing this mess into something swallowable it all sits around together without actually congealing.

This is especially sad in that it begins with such promise. The first 45 minutes is the tight little story of a jealous little girl who tells a horrible lie, one which seperates her upper class sister sultry Keira Knightley from hunky lower class scholar James McAvoy. With the woodsy drawing rooms and parlours, proper mustaches and so forth there is a definte Merchant-Ivory-ness to the proceedings but the set-up is suitably engrossing.

No doubt the real heat in the passionate performances by Knightley and McAvoy are a big factor, as is the creepy stare of little Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan. There is enough subtle intrigue from the surrounding players and residual goodwil towards the star-crossed lovers to have propelled this into all sorts of second and third acts.

Which makes the wet squib of Joe Wright's film (and for all I know, the Ian McEwan novel it's based on) all the more shameful. Wright is a talented director as the first part of the film and a bravura 4 and a half minute, one take shot set during the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II attest. The goodwill of the setup is spoilt, first by the war scenes which ultimately lead nowhere, then by a draggy sequence with Romola Garai as a now 18-year old Briony Tallis -- she of the dreadful lie. Garai seems parachuted in from another movie -- her performance is fine but it never connects us with the younger actress nor with the rest of what transpires.

Finally we are really sent down the chute by a too-clever-by-half wrap-up featuring glorious Vanessa Redgrave. The post-modern ending leaves a poor taste in the mouth, feeling like a screenwriter's thematic triumph but a filmgoer's wasted time. The sort of thing attempted in the end has to be handled just right to come off but Wright shows that as tecnically capable as he may be, he just doesn't have the control over this material to make it work. Stranding performances as solid as McAvoy's and as downright excellent as Knightley's in the morass of the second half of this film is nearly unforgivable.

Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is uniformly excellent as is the Oscar winning score by Dario Marianelli. Atonement gets 2 out of 5 British flags. Sorry guv'nor...

Here's the trailer:

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