Dec 4, 2009

[Movies] Atonement (2007)

AtonementA movie is not just a medium - it's an experience that becomes much more than the sum of all its parts. Sure, you can have great actors, an amazing director, stunning visuals, epic sets and moving music, but just adding those diverse elements together doesn't immediately make a great movie. It's the interaction of these components and how these various pieces come into play as the story unfolds that makes all the difference.

I feel a lot of people forget the important role music plays. As much as awards are given out to the scoring of a film, it doesn't necessarily equal to recognition and appreciation for such things. The average viewer just thinks of the scoring as something in the background to be enjoyed to a limited degree, but for them the real focus is the story as it unfolds. But in truth, the music in the scene (or even the absence thereof) help push the emotions, stress the message that the director is trying to convey.

This movie really drives that point home and it's no wonder it won the Oscar for it.

Cover of "Atonement"Cover of Atonement

Atonement is the adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel of the same name. It tells the story of primarily three individuals: 13 year old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), her old sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and the son of their housekeeper Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). Given it is based on a novel, you know that the plot is fairly complex and intertwines many diverse elements. At the same time however, the true kudos must go to the director for finding a way to separate the various plot threads, put them back together and thus creating a coherent, direct storyline that the viewer can more easily digest.

The main elements are these: as a child, Briony witnesses a key moment between Cecilia and Robbie. Since she sees this from a faraway window, she has no idea what is truly going on. All she sees is Cecilia stripping down to her undergarments, getting into the fountain pool, coming out and rushing off in a hush, leaving Robbie a bit dumbfounded. In truth, Cecilia had gone in to retrieve a piece of a vase that Robbie had accidentally damaged.

Then there's the romance between Cecilia and Robbie which has remained largely unrealized in their shared lives until this point. Now that Robbie is about to leave for medical school, Cecilia was then forced to face her true feelings for him and thus the two try to figure out how to resolve that angle of their lives.

Ultimately, there's an incident which turns the entire household upside down and brings the viewer to try and figure out why the title of the movie is "Atonement". Who is atoning for what transgression or crime? Who has the fault that much be reconciled? You will be given many different plot threads to consider until you finally realize what it's all about, and this reveal is certainly striking in its depiction.

The scoring makes interesting use of the sound of typewriters, of all things. At first the reason is obvious - Briony likes to write plays for her cousins to perform on her typewriter. But then later on you'll also see Robbie busy at the typewriter, frustratingly trying to write an appropriate apology letter to Cecilia. Even beyond those elements, the sound of the typewriter continues on interlaced with the music, possibly leading to moments of extreme tension or just helping to transition from one scene to another. How one single element of sound can turn into so many things and convey so many moods is striking.

Plus the movie as a whole was full of set pieces, practically still image moments of the actors in their scenes that manage to convey so much meaning. The director makes amazing use of moments of silence to speak more than just using dialog to add blatant exposition. This in itself is amazing and something many directors miss in favor of high action sequences, lengthy dialog or other just limited ways of storytelling. Every look and movement is important in this film. The viewer has to pay careful attention to everything in order to get the full meaning of the story.

Plus the acting was good given the actors. You can't help but hate Briony while at the same time feel for the awkward romance between Robbie and Cecilia. This is not just about whether or not Keira Knightly deserves a special award category of her own called "Best Performance in a Period Film" or something like that - they all really did rather well together and the chemistry between them was quite palpable.

Atonement is not a light film that you can watch idly or in passing. You need to dedicate your full attention to it while watching and try to take in every detail. It's rare to find movies like this these days and it's a shame it didn't win more awards. It gets 5 inappropriate apology letters out of a possible 5.


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