Atonement Should Get The Academy Award of ‘Best Picture’ This Year

‘Within the half hour Briony would commit her crime. Conscious that she was sharing the night expanse with a maniac, she kept close to the shadowed walls of the house at first, and ducked low beneath the sills whenever she passed in front of a lighted window – She thought how she might describe it, the way they bobbed on the illuminated water’s gentle swell, and how their hair spread like tendrils and their clothed bodies softly collided and drifted apart. The dry night air slipped between the fabric of her dress and her skin, and she felt smooth and agile in the dark. There was nothing she could not describe: the gentle pad of a maniac’s treads moving sinuously along the drive, keeping to the verge to muffle his approach. But her brother was with Cecilia, and that was a burden lifted. She could describe this delicious air too, the grasses giving off their cattle smell, the hard-fired earth which still held the embers of the day’s heat and exhaled the mineral odor of clay, and the faint breeze carrying from the lake a flavor of green and silver.’-Chapter Thirteen-Atonement-by Ian McEwan

The occasion for this review is the discovery of a movie ticket stub on the walkway as I took my morning sabbatical only a few fleeting days ago. I postulated that an anonymous senior citizen had seen Atonement on January 18th at the Arbor Theater in North Austin by the looks of the evidence; why then had he or she dropped this movie stub at this particular place and time on the sidewalk by the Convention Center will verily remain an ‘unsolved mystery’ ’till we part ways on Doomsday?

Yesterday I paid a visit to the public library since I was scouting out some titles on Pop Art, but as I renewed my library card, I remarked to the jocund lady-staff personage that all of the copies of Atonement by Ian McEwan had been purloined sagaciously, and I interrogated her as to whether she had already read it? She replied that yes she had, and retorted with perky enthusiasm that: “it is truly a most blessed novel”! Because of this, I lumbered expeditiously over to BookPeople and voraciously snagged up the last living paperback that rested precariously on that barren shelf.

Atonement begins in the summer of 1935, and takes place in a wealthy bucolic English manor; it is the story of Briony Tallis, an imaginative playwright at the tender age of thirteen, who is an eyewitness to three events that she gravely misinterprets. These are the critical events, the vehicle for the story is told. In the first incident, she sees a casting off of clothing by her sister Cecilia, before the eyes of Robbie Turner, a colleague from the lower orders, and then Cecilia takes a whimsical dive into a Bernini-type fountain.

From Briony’s point of view this is a ‘ritual of erotica,’ a brazen breach of morality. Little did she know that Cecilia was actually retrieving a broken vase by way of a treasured family heirloom. The second event is the delivering of an outlandish letter from Robbie to Cecilia, which Briony takes a peep at, then she walks in on a romantic interlude between the brand new lovers in the library. Briony misreads this as an intrusion by Robbie, and she shades it with a dearth of consent by her capricious sister, Cecilia. The third and most profound occurrence is the witnessing by Briony of the rape of Lola, her cousin as I recall, down by a nearby lake, after the twin cousins had suddenly vanished. Briony accuses Robbie Turner of the dastardly crime and this lays carpet for the remnant of the plot.

The second phase of the movie takes place in France and is six years later; these were the dark days of the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk, May of 1940. Robbie Turner is lost and runs cautiously about the countryside of France. The exchange of heart-felt letters between Robbie and Cecilia is projected creatively on the screen in fantasy syncopation. Cecilia and Briony are nurses for the army and their hardships are put under a microscope. Especially Briony’s flaming pangs of conscience are exposed with her perpetual scrubbing of filth; one is reminded of Lady Macbeth: “Out damned spot!” Visits back in time to the Tally estate drift in and out, details are laid in nicely, however the storyline morphs between truisms and wishful thinking, yet you are not cognizant of this until the final frame. Events heat up around the Battle of Dunkirk, but much is left untold. The third phase with the elderly Briony played by Vanessa Redgrave, ties up many of the loose ends but punches you in the gullet with a bodacious blow!

I do believe that Atonement (be sure to shuffle through these 43 pics) should be awarded the Best Picture for 2007 at the Academy Awards on February 24th. I had not seen it when I wrote my ‘Best Of’ about a month ago, but it generates positive ions/vibes that I had not detected in alternative offerings for our year just gone by. The costumes are dreamy, and if you just see it to experience Keira Knightley in the exquisite green gown then that would be a fitting excuse for jubilation.

Jacqueline Durran did the costume design (she did so for Pride and Prejudice [this is Jane Austen’s novel] as well) and she is up for another Academy Award, and I hope she gets it. The music is moody, stylish, and evokes chameleon-like alacrity; the composer, Dario Marianelli is up for an Oscar and jolly well may walk the victory carpet. The scenes at the manor in the English countryside reek of picturesque abandonment and whimsy; I was reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass; ’tis a rare fanfare of Victorian ambience, I should think. By contrast, the scenes of Dunkirk smacked of the starkness of modern war; this was a logical demarcation in the film’s evolving landscape.

The acting was carefully orchestrated with Ian McEwan’s novel and Keira Knightley was a palatable fit as Cecilia Tallis, with a proper British accent and gazelle-like forbearing, very taut and angular and emotive, but in a substantive acting role with gravity. James McAvoy is certainly competent as Robbie Turner, the educated son of a servant of the Tallis family. Even with that said, the consummate achievement in acting goes to Saoirse Ronan as the youthful and mischievous Briony Tallis; she is up for an Academy Award for best supporting actress, and I hope she grabs up the golden statue. Saoisre flits about as naturally as the fairy Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and her blonde bangs are bouncing freely and stylishly as she romps through the English countryside. Romola Garai as the middling Briony in the role of a nurse, tending the wounded after the Dunkirk rout, is mostly gripping; then at last the capstone role of Vanessa Redgrave as the elder Briony, an accomplished author by that time, reflectively inserts the last pieces into the sorrowful puzzle. The editing was tricky, with the necessity of mirroring the subtle time sequencing of the novel, the many flashbacks involved, that is, but I was riveted by the scissor to celluloid. As I read the novel I recollect (I only saw the movie one week ago) the loyalty of the editing to the story in words. I am lost on my journey with regard to Joe Wright, the director, but Pride and Prejudice should be plopped in my paltry mailbox this very day.

I will briefly conjure up the issue of symbolism in the movie; this comes by way of the novel, which I observe as ubiquitous within the lines. It may be discreet to disclose that I am only one-third of the way through the pages. Here is a nice review of the novel Atonement, for your perusal. The most obvious symbol observed is the illusive vase, which for me represents tradition or the heritage of the Tallis family. When it is shattered, into triangular shards, yet another symbol of the Holy Trinity, one senses that tradition has been violated. To view this in class terms, or to give it a Marxist spin, Robbie is from the lower order and Cecilia is from the upper order. By romancing her Robbie is jumping or crossing classes. This is a societal no no of the highest caliber; this is so because it is both erotic and revolutionary. Briony sees it in just this way too, and it throws up a red flag for her, and yet it (class crossing) allows her to persecute Robbie freely based on the dynamics of class alone. The angle of class dynamics is an important one for me, how about you? The fountain overture is a mating motif; Cecilia strips down and transforms into a Venus figure, with a visible eros zone. Moreover, her dip in the fountain is a baptismal reference, but the truth be spoken, this is a sensual baptismal thing, if you can divine my meaning? At that instance, Robbie and Cecilia’s love for one another becomes real, and is consummated, idealistically speaking! This is magical in nature and is right out of Ovid! Another symbol is Dunkirk, and it simply represents Robbie’s maturation into an ‘Age of Experience’ (this is a moniker of my own invention).

By way of contrast the experiences of ‘new love’ at the Tallis Estate in 1935 would call forth a notion that I will call the ‘Age of Innocence’; this would be a soft reference to William Blakes’ beautiful poems from the 19th century that helped to inaugurate the Romantic Period in English literature. Okay, another! The hospital comes to mind also, and is a kind of sanctuary of purity for both Cecilia and Briony. They almost seem to have joined a nunnery, at least in spirit. Briony uses the hospital to purge herself of the grave misdeed that she committed, but in spite of her relentless scrubbing of hospital beds, the regret and guilt will not fly away. Finally, the wildflowers in the vase represent the bacchanalian abandon experienced by Cecilia and Robbie when stricken by Cupid’s arrow. This is not a planned or calculated feeling, but rather spontaneous, just as wildflowers spring naturally from the womb of the earth! For the author this is a no brainer, but may not seem obvious to the ‘moral majority’!

I overdosed on PPs this weekend, but am fond of this form. Last night I had an odd epiphany that Gone With the Wind was the very first PP – um, I wonder? Some have labeled the current film under review as a ‘Period Piece’, and as such, this category might include such titles as Pride and Prejudice, Howard’s End, and the Age of Innocence, an unusual one for Martin Scorsese. I have not studied any formal definition of this genre, nor do I care to, but I suspect that most avid filmgoers have a clear grip on what this creature is. I should think that Jane Austen is the complimentary, canonized patron saint, and residing grandmother for the ‘Period Piece’? This is a truism that need not be further elaborated. As such, in my mind’s eye I am viewing our present film as a mere half-period-piece. Ian McEwan has been labeled as the Jane Austen of the modern English novel, but I believe he often utilizes motifs that are too modern to properly put him in this aforementioned camp exclusively! I am seeing bits of Faulkner and James Joyce, okay, and even the residue of Ernest Hemingway in his turn of phrase. Obviously, these writers were capable of writing PPs, but chose to deal with starker topics that surfaced in the early twentieth century. Enough said on that – for now, but power to the PP People!

Simultaneously, Atonement has a panoramic, aromatic atmosphere as if you’re inside a harlequin pulp-romance book cover, a tear-jerker you see, and in addition, the sinewy true-grit of a Hemingway short story, oozing the existential inconsequence of cruel, mangling warfare. No further inquiry is required. Themes raise their tremulous visage herein; the primer is the catastrophic infraction of Briony that haunts all her days and nights and will not vaporize, such as a bad dream! Much of this story is her attempt to purge this classic Christian sin from her soul, but such arduous efforts remain futile for her, save for the machinations of the ripe Vanessa. Another ‘platonic idea’ that comes in streams of idle reverie is the transparent cleavage betwixt reality and fantasy; Briony can exorcise demons by painting a rosy picture, wrought with confessions and tidied up lives-nay, but things could proffer for Cecilia, Robbie, and Briony herself, on another sunny day perchance? I will leave it at that as far as particulars go. The fundamental theme is the title itself: Atonement, which is a synonym for a – say contrition, or more clearly, righting a wrong, or – eureka Mister John – writing a wrong! We almost make it to the closing credits basking in bright yellow sunbeams, but unexpected cumulous clouds come rolling in, blurring the screen before we can de-wedge ourselves from our sticky velvet cushions and depart the movie house with peace of mind and spirit, for a change, or for goodness sakes! Oh – I sure am glad that I stumbled on that stray ticket stub.

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