Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Peanut Gallery: Atone

Considering I watched Atonement twice in one week to write a paper on it (and again with my mother a few weeks later because I could),  I decided that I should also write a casual review about it (infused, of course, with observations from my paper).

This movie has recently become one of my favorites, which is pretty great considering I loathed the book the first time I read it. I was in high school and young and dumb and didn't like Briony because she seemed like a snot to me (in retrospect, she totally reminds me of... well, me in high school. So that explains a lot). I also read it when I had the stomach flu and that was a TERRIBLE IDEA. Seriously, do not read this book if you are the slightest bit nauseous. It's like getting punched in the stomach when you read it, and that's on a good, bright sunny day. But I reread it not long ago and realized that it is absolutely genius. And then I saw the movie.

This film is one of those rare, peculiar creatures that sneaks up on you like a stealthy jaguar and then, out of nowhere, tears your heart out and eats it in front of you. It is devastating. And yet I continue to enjoy it greatly. Why? It's one of the best adaptions of a book I've seen. It leaves very little out and does a rather good job expressing action that mainly occurs in the character's heads. Of course, it's impossible to do this perfectly but I think it does it very, very well.

Also,  Joe Wright is a very, very clever director. I had ample things to discuss in my paper with all the camera techniques and details the film contains. I won't throw them all at you (the list I came up with was rather lengthy and I ended up cutting a lot of them out of the paper because otherwise it would have meandered on for over ten pages with me just talking about how windows are used throughout and so on) but I'm going to geek out about some of them. Interwoven into the film is the concept of vision and seeing, of believing one’s eyes and relying on them to discern truth from fiction. Briony Tallis, on the day of a large dinner party celebrating the arrival home of her brother, witnesses an event she does not understand between her sister, Cecilia, and their housekeeper’s son, Robbie. Mistaking the budding romance between Cecilia and Robbie as a threat of sexual mania, Briony accuses Robbie of a crime he didn’t commit and sentences him with the adamant faith Briony has in her own vision ("I saw him. I saw him with my own eyes," Briony repeats over and over, professing her belief in being able to identify Lola's attacker).

I really love the use of lighting; it's toyed with, blinding the viewer at times, illuminating characters in warm halos, and hinting to the presence of camera at times (at the part where Briony finds Lola, a beam of light can be seen focusing on them, coming from behind Briony. The source is not from her flashlight and, as there is no one else at the crime scene, it seems to come from the camera). There are also a plethora of mirrors in this film. Mirrors are generally a reference to the camera in film, but the way Wright uses mirrors is so cool. When Paul Marshall first sees Lola and her brothers, he initially views Lola talking to her brothers as a reflection in a mirror he can see from standing in the hallway outside of the room. The viewer shares this view with him and, as he steps into the room, another mirror can be seen on the wall behind him. Actually, there's just a crapton of mirrors in this room, which is really interesting as this scene is super creepy... for reasons I'll get to shortly.

I am also a huge fan of the the soundtrack used throughout; it's pretty distinct and unconventional when compared to most Hollywood scores. It forms an ominous presence throughout, full of sounds that mimic the clatter of typewriter keys. Heavy, percussive piano and rapid string orchestration also comprise the music and provide an eerie, noticeable presence that helps distance the viewer from the action onscreen. During certain instances, such as Marshall’s arrival at the Tallis house, the music is unusually dark and heavy, providing both a use of foreshadowing narratively and insisting to the viewers to pay attention to what they see with caution and keep a skeptical eye. Also, the inclusion of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" is brilliant and poignant reminder of the losses of war, especially after the sickbed talk with Briony and the French soldier (total tearjerker, trust me).

But perhaps the number one reason this movie is brilliant is how uncomfortable it makes me. Why? Because Paul Marshall is one creepy dude. I would like to take a moment (or twelve) and fansquee over the talent of Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch and his ability in this role to make me absolutely loathe the guts of the character he portrays.

Because, somehow, marvelously, this guy:

(See, I told you, Ashley and Bridget - he is a ginger :D)
Becomes this guy:

This guy is Paul Marshall, and if he had a super power, it would be perfectly personifying the male gaze. Like in the scene where he first speaks to Lola. Though we know little about his character, the way he leers at Lola speaks multitudes. His gaze is eerie, jarring, and uncomfortable, and upon handing Lola a chocolate bar and darkly uttering, “You have to bite it,” the viewer feels a strong urge to look away. And possibly throw things and cringe and cry.

Okay, so apparently I only added this gif because I'm some sort of masochist as just finding this link, downloading it, and adding it in this post caused me to unleash a series of curse words and... well, do this:

It doesn't matter how many times I see this movie, how many times I watch this gif. It is always uncomfortable and disconcerting and I have a really hard time reconciling that this actor is the same one who plays the clever, snarky Sherlock and the sweet, if short lived, William Carey (The Other Boleyn Girl). However, if I wished to deny that this was the same actor, I'd be doing Mr. Cumberbatch a great disservice, because he handles this role with such skill and grace. It could not have been an easy character to portray but he does so with such panache that it makes the film even more of a pleasure to watch. Even if that pleasure involves me cowering in a corner, feeling I shall never trust humanity ever again.

(There are giant spoilers from this point forward. So, if you haven't seen the movie or aren't familiar with the book, please don't blame me for giving away the ending to you).

Marshall’s gaze is important again later in the film, during his marriage scene to Lola. As he and Lola pass by Briony at the back of the church, the couple stare at her in shock. They continue to walk past and, just as they reach the door of the church, Marshall turns back for a double take. Marshall cannot believe his eyes, something the viewer (uncomfortably enough) will come to share with him. By the end of the film, the viewer will be doubting their own vision of the events of the film. (And I will be left wondering if that double take was planned or improvised. Because it's the perfect encapsulation of the film - guessing sight, doubting what you see, looking backwards to understand. It's brilliant.)

Probably the most emotional part of the film for me is the the segment in the television studio where Briony explains that Robbie and Cecilia both died and that the entire scene with them living together is an invention of Briony's mind. In the scene of Briony’s imagining, Robbie calls Briony an “unreliable witness” in reference to her perception of Lola's rape. As the viewer has shared Briony’s perspective for much of the film, they are aligned with her and an become an unreliable witness themselves. They can no longer quite trust in what they have seen and, as the final scene of Robbie and Cecilia on the beach is shown to them, it rings with a melancholy longing provoked by the narrative and also a skepticism in the camera with the impossibilities it reveals. In the end, we are left with Briony's wish to give her sister and Robbie the happiness they did not receive when they were alive. But it does not exactly provide the viewer comfort, as we know this is not real.

I could ramble on about this movie forever - how interesting it is that it uses the theme of a writer crafting a tale to express the narrative of the film (and film-making in general). How the theme of vision is used in so many different ways throughout. How fantastic Saoirse Ronan is as young Briony. But I'll spare you. All I can say is no matter how many times I see this film, its impact grows in magnitude and I end up loving it more and more.

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