Sunday, May 18, 2008

Atonement

I haven't read the book (and I don't intend to--the hideously overwrought Amsterdam was enough for me, after so many overhyped and ultimately unsatisfying books), but from the film, the premise looked familiar. Someone fucks up and then there's a tide of meh for the rest of it. The books are usually a mix of good and bad.

Good in that McEwan is a competent (although not brilliant, despite the rave reviews) writer, who reads well. For a literary writer, he is not difficult to engage with. Good too that he comes up with great setpiece ideas.

Bad in that he allows his plots to unravel. It's as though he spends his creativity on the twists and ignores the rest, pumping filler into the gaps. Bad also in that his books, although pursuing a strict moral code, in which the universe takes a stern vengeance on those who go wrong, are hollow. The characters are a millimetre thick, just deep enough for you to despise them, rarely enough for you to sympathise.

The film is astonishingly faithful to McEwan's worldview. I didn't give a fuck about any of the characters, and none, Lola apart, had any substance. Which is a problem for a movie. I believe that empathy for the protagonist is central to the film experience, and great films base themselves on it. On that subject--pardon the digression--although I felt No country for old men was a huge, wonderful film, I was deeply disappointed that the Coens did not diverge from McCarthy's casual dismissal of his "hero" (a hallmark of McCarthy's writing). Having built up the empathy we are discussing, it is blown away in a couple of minutes. I was completely WTF. After such a long sequence of fearing for the hero, living through it with him, etc etc, he is gone--off camera--in a poorly constructed, difficult to grasp couple of minutes.

Talking of McCarthy, I am reading Blood meridian, and it's one of those books that makes you want to go back to writing. So I'm glad I did. It's spectacularly good, better than anything else by him that I've read (which isn't much). It's no exaggeration to say that every sentence is beautiful, hardly a word misplaced, an astonishing work of the imagination, reinventing the Western genre and at the same time reframing what you might call the Hemingway line of American writing, which ends in the fractured bitty genius of James Ellroy, but here is taken to a height of lyricism that I think was Mailer's aim and that Hemingway was not capable of (when he tried for it, in Old man and the sea, he fell far short imo).

Anyway, Atonement received rave reviews, and in large part deserves them. The film is beautifully made and the acting is wonderful. Saoirse Ronan in particular is fantastic, although not exactly realist, making a clockwork doll of the young Briony. Vanessa Redgrave, also, excels, giving a masterclass, although she has the weakest part of the film to do it in. Knightley and McAvoy are slightly unconvincing as the starcrossed lovers, but it's no fault of theirs (it doesn't help that Knightley does not look at all sexy in this film: she looks butch in the 30s dresses and she aimed for stiff in her performance, which is apt for the part but does not allow her to look like someone you'd go crazy for; and McAvoy's character is so poorly written that he barely makes sense--this is doubtless a flaw of the book). The problem is that the story is cracked and splintered, and doesn't work. It's like someone put every ingredient of a great film into the mixer, except they left out a plot. The main premise is fine, but its unraveling is thin. The plot is all tricksiness making up for lack of ideas imo.

The worst of it is the lack of emotional engagement. I simply didn't care what happened to anyone in the film. Also, the literary musing on a literary atonement for a real-life sin fell flat. It sort of makes sense if you squint, as McEwan's denouements are wont to do, but it feels jerry-rigged.

A special word though for the score. It's a one-off, totally brilliant. And of course that tracking shot. It has nothing to do with anything, doesn't add a thing to the film, is basically a diversion from the plot, but it is a tour de force all the same.

2 Comments:

At 7:56 am, Anonymous theminotaur said...

"I believe that empathy for the protagonist is central to the film experience"

This is an interesting thought. Why do you think it's so critical? Is it equally important in a book? Or a play? And if it isn't, why do you think film is different?

 
At 8:39 am, Blogger Dr Zen said...

I think because films are generally shot from a first-person perspective. They have a defined protagonist, whose viewpoint we share. If a book is structured in the same way, then yes, it's important to empathise with the character. I guess understanding would be enough, but I doubt you can understand if you don't empathise.

It's hard to articulate why films are different. I think for me what it comes down to is that books provide a framework within which you paint your own picture, whereas films paint the picture for you: they are always the auteur's vision. When you watch James Bond, for instance, and say, he doesn't look how I imagined he would, that's exactly it. You are not watching how you imagine things are; you are watching how someone else imagines it. I haven't deeply analysed it, but I know that I feel a book is weak if it crowds out your own ability to imagine, yet films often benefit from being extremely detailed (although they too can get bogged down and dull).

 

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