Sunday, September 9, 2007
My 3 problems with Atonement.
It’s facetious to judge a film without having seen it, but the near-constant barrage of reviews and media coverage that this film is generating means that I feel I basically know it already, and that I don’t care about the honesty of weighing in and giving my opinions without yet having seen it. Because I know I will see it, eventually. It’s inevitable - this is already turning into one of the year’s most talked about films. This is not one of the things that makes my list of quibbles, but it’s a point that bothers me. The first review of Atonement I came across was Emma’s, which I read with great avidity. I was curious to see what she thought of it, having just read the book myself. Later that week, the reviews began appearing in most of the Broadsheets and some more blogs. Then came the Venice Film Festival and the weight of press coverage this garnered was almost sickening. It bothered me that with so many other highly anticipated films showing, Atonement was the one that got the most buzz. It goes without saying I was thrilled when the Golden Lion for Best Film went to Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. If the judges had awarded Atonement the top prize, I think my head might have exploded
1. Kiera Knightly.
I’m with Mark Kermode on this one. How the hell is “Ikea Knightly” an Oscar-nominee? It completely baffles. I’ll confess (albeit with glee) that I’ve only endured the first Pirates film, which I thought was “alright, not really my thing and way too long”. The second, and subsequently the third, seemed to get progressively worse and from all accounts, so did Keira’s acting. Having been marginally interesting in Bend It Like Beckham, she has simply done nothing in recent that has dazzled. Or even, you know, not made me sigh in despair. The final straw was catching her on Jonathan Ross last night. She didn’t seem entirely sane, but nor was she interesting in a kooky way. Instead she came across as needy, trying to wheedle Ross into admiting she wasn’t a bad actress. I don’t really pick fault with the casting of her as Cecilia, probably the book’s least interesting character, so much as I fault her acting at all, full stop.
2. The adaptation of the novel.
I had some major problems with the book itself, more on which later. But while reading it, I realised that this is an exceedingly odd choice to adapt for film. Ian McEwan’s excellent Enduring Love was, in my opinion, a better novel and also had a filmable plot. Atonement’s primary concern is with writing and the destructive power of the imagination, whether a writer is ever completely honest, if it is possible to atone for a terrible crime by writing about it. These themes are engaging and thoughtful, but not ones that scream “cinematic!”. The middle section, which centres on World War II, is the most filmable section of the novel, and also the part I found least engaging. Coincidence?
3. The novel itself.
I’ll admit that I read Atonement purely for the reason that there was to be a film based on it and I always prefer to read the book first rather than after. It wasn’t through lack of trying, I’d started it on two previous occasions but always gave up. There was something that didn’t quite catch me in it’s opening chapters, but this time I ploughed on and ended up rather enjoyed sections. The opening third, set in a stately English home during a sweltering pre-war summer, was well written and I found parts thrilling. The middle section, set during the war, I found formulaic. It had the façade of being well written, nicely composed sentences and McEwan’s masterful vocabulary in all it’s glory, but the sentiment seemed false to me. It was borderline boring, but not too offensive. But then came the shocker; it’s third act actually appalled me. I’m loath to reveal what exactly angered me, but it’ll suffice to say it was a cruel twists deployed by McEwan that only served to further his cleverness. I doubt he did it purely as a show-off gesture, but that’s how it read to me. The twist completely undermines everything that has come before it and plain upset me. But rethinking about it now has me conflicted; I understand that this twist was integral in driving home the central theme of the book, but at the same time I felt cheated and misled. The characters were sacrificed in favour of lamenting the fate of the author, we’ll say.