Friday, April 25, 2008


At the center of Atonement is a much-celebrated, five minute tracking shot following a central character (once a gardener, now a British soldier during World War II) across the evacuation at Dunkirk beach. As he and his companions stride across this landscape, the camera takes in a wealth of visual information, detailing with great efficiency the vast swaths of humanity present at this specific time and place in history. It exposes not just the horrors of war represented by the wounded, dying, or dead soldiers, but also the boredom and esprit de corps of the men waiting to be rescued from military annihilation. I have no familiarity with the book this film is based on, so cannot account for whether or not this is an attempt to capture the density of information from a memorable moment or chapter in the novel, but, while this shot is technically impressive, its use in the film renders it solely a novelty, a technical gimmick for cinematography nuts to discuss as they list the great tracking shots in film history. What occurs during this shot could not be called a "scene" in the traditional narrative sense; it's just a tour. For all of the information the film provides in these five minutes, it neglects to use its wizardry to tell us anything at all about the character it's so laboriously following around.

So much of Atonement resembles this shot, resembles this moving-without-really-going-anywhere mentality. It's a gorgeously shot film with inventive use of movement in the cinematography, a similarly inventive and richly textured score, adequate-to-great performances, and a script with well-wrought multiple perspectives and a broken chronology that pays off superbly in the movie's final moments. Yet for all of these riches, it doles out narrative like a drip irrigation system. The film recounts the destruction of the love affair between the noble, lower class Robbie (James McAvoy) and the upper-crust, mannered Cecilia (Keira Knightley) after Cecilia's jealous younger sister Briony tells a life-shattering lie about Robbie. In doing so, it flails all over the place, apparently unsure of what story it's telling or even why it's telling it. The film is no doubt trying to keep up with the book's breadth and scope, but who cares? There's no spine to be found, nothing holding its pieces together but the title--a title that, it should be noted, is more or less ignored by the structure of the script until the film's final scenes.

Even beyond the famed tracking shot, much of this film's running time is taken up with pointless shots of characters walking through their environs (these walking shots probably add fifteen minutes to the film's length). While this type of thing does convey a welcome specificity about the film's setting, as well as a pleasing visual aesthetic, it amounts to very little as the characters and story don't seem rooted to this time and place in the same way that, say, the characters or story of Barry Lyndon did. After a while, I wished the characters would stop going places and just get there already. I was vaguely interested in the familiar but somewhat surprising story, and these moments were needlessly delaying my gratification for some production design pornography.

For all of these complaints, Atonement actually inspires very little passion (beyond relief that the usually tone-deaf Academy did not reward this middling film at Oscar time earlier in the year). The film is bold and big in a David Lean kind of way, and, though this is very often at odds with the story being told (never more apparent than during that dunderheaded, misguided tracking shot), it helps to offset the slippery, invertebrate nature of the script. While it strides around, gleefully showing off, it's hard not to feel somewhat impressed with its cockiness while knowing that it's overcompensating.

1 comment:

Atonement said...

The movie is made in two languages English and French. This is the movie to which I am hearty attached. i don't know whats the reason but this is the movie that i love very much.