Sunday, January 20, 2008

"I'm sorry; Two words I always think..." -Feist

I suppose that before I get into the meat and potatoes of the post here I have to give a shout out to my sister Lauryn. She has goaded me into posting a review of a couple of movies that I have seen by telling me that she likes the way I write them. So blame her for the glut of writing that will be focused on the movies I have seen over the last couple of days.

I have at various points in the history of this blog posted up movie reviews. I have expressed my disdain for over the years for movies that butcher the literature of my youth, making needless edits and changes and thereby inexorably changing the story and robbing it of its magic. I have extolled the virtues of good old-fashioned mindless entertainment and I have given a review that I think I filed under the heading “Good But Who Gives a Shit.”

The common thread for all of these is expectation; because when you get right down to it expectation shapes the way I view movies. I can remember really not liking “Children of Men” because in my heart I wanted more from the movie than it was capable of delivering. By the same token, I look back fondly on movies like "Transformers" (and G-d am I saying this out loud?) "Spice Girls" because they met my very very low expectations for the film. But I would never say that "Children of Men" is worse than "Spice Girls".

Since we have a lot of ground to cover let’s get to it:

First up is Atonement; book by Ian McEwan, film directed by Joe Wright, Screenplay by Christopher Hampton.

I am a slow reader by nature. I am a very comprehensive reader as well. The end result is that I don’t spend a lot of time rereading books because I have a very good memory for them. I recently reread Susan Cooper’s, Dark Is Rising and was surprised at how much I still remembered about the story, even though it has been twenty years since I read it. Ian McEwan’s Atonement was a very difficult read for me. It took me all in about a month to get through. Not because the words were too big or difficult; but because every single page was wrought with emotional turmoil and passion. (Now admittedly I was also in the middle of Christmas Carol so I was working six, sometimes seven, days a week and found very little spare time to just sit and read.)

What McEwan does so beautifully is pack the pages full of description, which is so hard to do. I would love to call myself an earnest writer and one of the things that I have been told over and over again is describe, don’t tell. McEwan describes, in every sense of the word, the story so well.

The book itself is a little over 350 pages and divided into three parts. The first part is told from the perspective of an eleven or twelve year old girl, Briony; her sister, Cecilia, and the maid’s son, Robbie Turner. (Cecilia and Robbie are ten years older than Briony.)

The first part captured with amazing eloquence that moment in time when children became young adults. In Briony’s case, the innocence of her youth is chipped early in the day and by the end of the night completely shattered and this sets the whole story into motion. McEwan captures, through brilliant transitions in voice, the seeming gaps in maturity between the three principal characters. When we are told Briony’s story the word choices are often grander than absolutely necessary, but then that is how a twelve-year-old surrounded by adults might interpret language so it works; whereas, when Robbie’s story is being told it is kept tidy, the story really reflecting the son of the Charlady in the house. The first part culminates in a closing chapter that is infuriating and heartbreaking in equal parts. The palpable anger that I felt for Briony was astonishing to me – and I am well aware of my own book-reading flaws, which include, amongst other things, laughing out loud in public at the humorous parts.

The second part was the most difficult for me to get through. First because it the story of Robbie Turner’s evacuation from France during World War II. And second because it is just an incredibly descriptive section. I found myself having to go and reread whole sections because I was lost in the imagery that McEwan creates. It was the imagery that bogged me down and for good reason. In the story Robbie is marching to Dunkirk where the Royal Navy is evacuating over 300,000 people. What McEwan does is to make the reader very aware of the pace of this march. The whole process in the book takes maybe three days, and in the story it is almost a continuous 125 pages of incredibly lush-bordering on poetic-description of the French countryside, the horror and atrocity of war, and the fragile camaraderie that exists between soldiers.

There is a particularly gut wrenching scene where Robbie is trying to help a mother and her son avoid a German strafe and bomb mission on the retreating British forces. He is left with only a crater in the ground as the mother and son are stricken with fear and stop running.

It is the horror of war being captured through the eyes of someone whose life has gone so horribly wrong that makes you weep the hardest for the character. You are left with a real sense that Robbie is a hero, somebody who really is a good person. And not for personal gain, he does it because he, quite simply, doesn’t know any other way.

It is with part three that we get to the real essence of what this book is really about. As the name suggestions the book is about the reconciliation of grievous error. In this case a twelve-year-old lets her imagination run away with her and, in an effort be an adult before she is ready, ruin the lives of both Cecilia and Robbie. The third part joins Briony during her Parishioner year at a hospital where she is filling the role of Nightingale Nurse. This section is so hectic and the action jumps from one activity (or patient) to the next with such abandon that I was really struck by the speed that Briony must have been moving; speed that was by design and effort to outrun the shame that she felt now that she was a little older and understood what the implications of her actions are.

The thing that really sold me on the book is that it really is a heart-wrenching story. I can’t quite describe it, but anybody that has exes, or siblings or parents ought to read this so that as a minimum they understand the potential consequences their actions might have.

(I was trying to come up with a pithy way to segue into the comparison between book and movie, but alas five deleted paragraphs and some lame idioms have made me resort to a juggernaut approach.)

I made the mistake of seeing the movie first. I started reading the book, put it down, saw the movie, and then finished the book a full month and a week later. I think that the book would read faster with out the imagery and the criticism that I have of the movie.

The thing is though, that my criticism of the movie isn’t that large. First I pictured Cecilia to be more homely than Keira Knightley is capable of being, and second I thought that Romola Garai, who plays the older Briony, looked 25, and not 18. There you have it; criticism concluded.

Sometimes, when literature is being turned into a movie, I think moviemakers tend to want to change the story to make it fit the camera lens; examples of this include The DaVinci Code; The Dark is Rising, Golden Compass to name a few. Each of the examples I gave had different aspects of their story changed to make it different and change the story; in Da Vinci Code the book the church was not a bad guy, in the movie The Church was the antagonist acting through Opus Dei to thwart the Priory of Scion and Robert Langdon; Dark is Rising was an abomination and they changed the story so much that I think it is better to just pretend that it never happened; but I did make a post about it and you can find it here if you have the fortitude. Golden Compass, same thing read it here towards the bottom.

Joe Wright and Chris Hampton didn’t change a thing in "Atonement" until the epilogue that makes up the chapter titled London, 1999. And you know what? They nailed the important part and got the information to me in a way that changed very little of the story.

Here are the things that stood out to me in the movie, James McAvoy is going to be a super star; at least that is my hope. This is a guy who, in span of one movie, played three very different characters and he did it in a way that had me believing that he had gone through the life altering circumstances of the character in the book. I suppose that is what acting is all about, right? But why is it so remarkable that he did it so well and Tom Cruise keeps throwing up a regurgitated version of himself from Jerry Maguire every time he makes a movie. Maybe it was his youthful exuberance? Also I think it would astonishing to not see Saoirse Ronan or Romola Garai in the future.

One of the best transitions in the book for me was Briony’s growth from the creepy eleven-year-old who is treated like an adult but is very obviously a child, to the eighteen-year-old version that sees, with startling clarity, the errors of her past.

This transition is really well captured in the casting of Ronan and the aforementioned Garai. Ronan captures the creepy intensity of Briony at 13 as she wanders through the events, with her prejudices and fears really driving the way, until the act that cements the story. Garai has a striking innocent quality to her appearance and a great tone of voice, she is able to really exude apology with her eyes and I am still haunted by her first scene.

Quality of acting aside though, the director and cinematographer really are the stars of the show. Ian McEwan packs so many visuals into the novel and the filmmakers here really got to the heart of it and captured the book on film. The scene of two figures at the fountain, filming in the house, the march to Dunkirk, the hospital were all done with such great attention to the words that McEwan used to describe the environment—whether it is heat, or dryness, or the exhaustion that come from a long march—that it cemented this movie as a great translation.

The epitome of this for me is a scene that I have heard simply called “The Long Shot”. The scene in the book involves Robbie Turners march from somewhere in Northern France to the British Expeditionary Forces withdrawal point at Dunkirk. The text is probably twenty-five pages of marching, avoiding bombs, being in the army and survival. The Long Shot hit me like a can of film up aside the head.

The thing that makes it so remarkable is that you don’t realize what is happening until you get half way through it and then you realize, “HOLY CROW, THIS IS ALL THE SAME SHOT!” The whole shot takes about fifteen minutes, maybe a little more and it covers the walk up to Bray Dunes by Robbie Turner and Corporals Mace and Nettle.

I have read that they were under budget constraints, which is why they did it this way. Whatever the reason it works. I left the movie "Atonement" and spent the day wondering how the book was written because there was so little dialog for a large junk of the film. I remember thinking about the line that divides filmmakers and moviemakers and trying to place Atonement into a compartment that made sense: is it a film or movie, is it good or bad? I don’t think that I was able to place the magnitude of my feelings for the movie in their proper place until I had finished reading the book; now that I have, I am more appreciative of the masterwork of Joe Wright.

This is a movie that everybody who loves film should see, if for no other reason than to see the cinematography of it. It is far and away the most beautiful movie I saw last year.

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Blogger lauryn said...

Great review. Don't think less of me, but I had no interest in the movie prior to the review. Now, it is on my list of things to do. Still waiting for 27 Dresses, but I suppose you'll want to read the book first. ;)

1/20/2008 11:00:00 PM  
Blogger V. said...

In truth I will probably go and see that on Tuesday during the day.

1/20/2008 11:02:00 PM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

I cannot agree with you more on your review. Spot on.

6/22/2009 09:47:00 PM  

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