Thursday, January 17, 2008

Corona Music

More reviewing as I try to catch up with some of 2007's best.

Atonement (d. Joe Wright)

The most musical film of 2007 isn't a musical at all.

Joe Wright's Atonement may not feature characters bursting into song or dancing balletically down impossible staircases, but in tone and strategy and execution, it resembles an intricate opera. Themes play off one another, repeat, then repeat again with small but telling variation. Emotions are heightened and sins are unforgivable.

The Second World War looms in the distance as the film opens in an idyllic English country home. The author of the story in more ways than one is 13-year-old Briony Tallis, a precocious little girl (played with icy confidence in the early part of the movie by newcomer Saoirse Ronan) who taps out verse plays on her manual Corona typewriter for her reluctant visiting cousins to perform. Her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the Tallis family's housemaid's son Robbie (James McAvoy) begin a torrid affair that Briony sees and envies. Her envy will cause her to author a different story, one that will lead to tragic consequence.

Those events in the country home are played out as counterpoint to Dario Marianelli's Golden Globe winning score, which uses Briony's typewriter as its major percussive instrument. And what began as the sweet sound of a little girl playfully tapping out her stories and dramas becomes the drumbeat of several characters' downfall.

Eventually, all will be swept up in the war. Robbie ends up in the army, fighting in France. Cecilia and Briony both become nurses, tending to the wounded. But Briony isn't done writing her story yet and not all the events unfold as they seem.

At the center of the movie like a sweeping aria comes a five and a half minute tracking shot that encompasses what appears to be the entire beach at Dunkirk during the evacuation. Its a directorial flourish, to be sure, but it serves the story well, summing up the absurdities, cruelties and unrealities of both the war and of the lives irrevocably changed by one 13-year-old little girl. Some people die, some celebrate, horses are shot, soldiers play on abandoned carnival rides, and a military chorus sings of "The Beauty of Thy Peace."

Both Knightley and McAvoy are passionate and assured as they conduct their moderately naughty affair. They receive able support from British period film stalwarts like Brenda Blethyn and Harriet Walter. And watch for surprising cameos at the end of the film by director Anthony Minghella and the great Vanessa Redgrave. Young Saoirse Ronan (it's pronounced SHEER-Sha and it's Gaelic for "Freedom") is the real revelation here. She steals all of her early scenes and gives the film its ominous center.

In the later scenes, five years older, Briony is played by Romola Garai, and she is haunted by her past. She still writes (she will to almost the end of her days), and throughout she creates more and more scenes and scenarios, some she dreads, some she fervently wishes for. But with all that authorial skill, there's one desire she never scripts out for herself.

She can never quite imagine that she will ever be forgiven.

4 stars

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