Sunday, January 27, 2008

Movie Review: Atonement

Not quite as good as the book. And yes, I did like the book, a lot. I like imaginative historical fiction, and this one was beautifully written. Appropriate, for a book about the power of words to destroy lives or express remorse or attempt atonement. This movie is about lies that destroy lives and lies that we tell ourselves in order to carry on

James McAvoy is, as always, a wonderful actor--capable of switching from easy charm to moody intensity to sudden bursts of emotion. I am quite fond of him. I used to be less fond of Keira Knightley, and other such actors who act with their mouths too much (cough Renee Zellweger cough), but she's become a better actor in recent years, but then again I don't watch the Pirate movies. Yargh. The angular nature of her beauty gives her a restive look.

But the movie is really about Briony Tallis, and this character was brilliantly acted by Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony. Dude, this little girl is scary. With watery blue eyes, white blond hair, a pointed chin and a smattering of freckles, she is straight out of The Turn of the Screw. Children are scary.She grows up into the timid and brittle Romola Garai, and then to the exquisitely fragile Vanessa Redgrave. Why they all had to have the same hairstyle through a half century is beyond me, but it is a mark of the film that shows visually what the book doesn't: Briony is at her most powerful (and most terrifying) when she is very young and full of fanciful but vicious ideas and lies, and she gradually weakens over the course of her life, burdened by her lie and the impossible task of atonement.

In the end, this is just one of those books that is better read than dramatized: it is a novel about words and their power to wound, it is a novel that ends with a suckerpunch that is a literary rug-pulling way to confess the limits of fiction, that it is itself a lie to cover up other lies.

It is worth seeing, but for some reason, the book is just more emotionally resonant.*

*No doubt, The Dude will quibble with this, as he described me as "Ms. Waterworks" as I was sniffling throughout the movie. Whatever, man.