Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Aesthetic Failings (and Brief Triumph) of Atonement

Visually, Atonement's a mess, simultaneously overloaded and underdeveloped, but if director Joe Wright hasn't created a coherent visual scheme, it's not for lack of trying. The whole thing is shot through with a deliberate fuzziness, perhaps meant to underscore the central character's inability to understand what she sees (a miscomprehension which sets the film's events in motion), but this slight visual blurring has the unfortunate side effect of absolving Wright from properly situating his characters in the frame, the deliberate obscurity covering for the scattershot mise-en-scène. When he does find time to frame his figures, he frequently stuffs them into awkward positionings as when James McAvoy pins Keira Knightley to the wall in a gravity-defying love embrace. Wright directs with a great impatience, an impatience which causes him to eschew well-thought out compositions in favor of a series of amateurish tricks which fail to increase our understanding of the material or even provide any autonomous aesthetic pleasures. Among the tricks he resorts to are a series of quick cuts between Knightley's and McAvoy's perspectives, unnecessary close-ups of the word "cunt" being typed on a sheet of paper, a montage of several earlier scenes played in reverse and (auditorily) an annoying insistence on working the sound of typewriter keys into the film's soundtrack. Unlike The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in which Julian Schnabel's similarly ebullient direction succeeds in conjuring up the rich inner life of a paralyzed man, Wright's manipulations seem like the desperate gestures of a filmmaker who lacks the imagination to give cinematic expression to source material (Ian McEwan's novel) that is, admittedly, difficult to film. (It helps that Schnabel has a much richer visual understanding than Wright.)

The one exception to Atonement's visual failings is the famed five-minute tracking shot along the beach at Dunkirk during the film's World War II section. The sequence has been widely attacked (like the entire film) for the coldness of the authorial manipulation, an attack granted additional fodder by the director's admission that his reason for staging the shot was that he "just like[s] showing off." The sequence's detractors claim that, technical virtuosity aside, the shot doesn't add anything to our understanding of the film's characters and has no emotional resonance. Ed Gonzalez, for example, dismissed the sequence as "a triumph of extras casting and production design but completely devoid of emotion." These objections must be granted, except that the scene does provoke a certain emotional response, albeit one unconnected with the film's story or characters. It is instead the response triggered by a pure aesthetic pleasure. Of course, the viewer can only experience this pleasure as "pure" if, having taken in the film's prior failures, he has already given up on it. No longer entertaining legitimate hopes of experiencing a satisfying work of art, he is free to view the tracking-shot independent of its context in the film's overall scheme, enjoying it on its own autonomous merits.

If the first section of the film presents a rather compelling story marred by the director's cute visual tricks, the tracking sequence, which critic Robbie Freeling correctly notes is "completely aesthetically opposed to the rest of the film," represents precisely the reverse. Dropping the pretense of advancing the story, Wright grants us a stand-alone sequence in which, unlike the earlier sections, he is completely in control of the material. Against a thoroughly denuded color scheme (gray sky, gray sand), the camera follows Robbie and two fellow soldiers as they walk along the beach past hundreds of others who bide their time, some singing, most staring blankly, one performing gymnastic exercises on a stranded pommel horse; stopping to highlight a beached ship, a horse being shot, a Ferris wheel spinning in the very back of the screen. The only justification for the scene is that, taken alone, it is the one section of the film that, on a strictly aesthetic level, works without question. Given the strenuous efforts on the director's part at infusing the whole film with this kind of visual liftoff, efforts whose failures seem to stem from Wright's inability to develop a visual program appropriate to his material, the fact that he does succeed so thoroughly, if only once, makes the scene all the more remarkable. The Dunkirk sequence is by no means enough to salvage the film, especially given its lack of emotional connection to the rest of the work, but it succeeds in providing five minutes of visual delight in an otherwise ugly, ugly picture.


Allison said...

you make some very interesting points, not the least of which pinpointing precisely what i couldn't figure out was bothering me about the film. (the annoying repetition of the typewriter sound and the rehashing of the scenes as robbie is dying).

i did find the awkward position of the scene in the library to be wholly consistent with what briony would have seen. her warped perception of what was actually happening seemed represented in this way somehow, whether that was intentional or not. (and i did get the sense that a lot of the film was rushed and strangely "unintended"...if that makes any sense.)

andrew schenker said...

It's hard to say what was intentional and what was not, but it's certainly true that, visually, the film seems concoted with a great impatience and, whatever, Wright's intentions, the scenes are poorly composed. You're right in identifying the staging of the library scene with Briony's subjective viewpoint (the only possible justification for such awkward mise-en-scene), but I find the gravity-defying pin all too symptomatic of Wright's overall strategy - covering up an unimaginative visual presentation with the occasional touch of awkward showmanship.

Cesar Fernandez D said...

I saw a preview of this film yesterday and felt privileged to be one of the first people to see the film. It was also a pleasure to see a film before reading any other critical review or opinion. I am a great fan of Ian Mcewan and was concerned that it would not be possible to capture the subtleties and nuances of Mcewan's writing but I needn't have had any worries. The director, Joe Wright and screenplay writer Christopher Hampton have done a superb job and the complexities of the novel are superbly captured with real imagination. The story is set in three main areas, an English country house in 1935, war torn France 1940 and London 1940. The atmosphere in of all three are wonderfully captured by the director, cinematographer, costume design and score and I am sure that there are going to be some Oscar nominations for these. James McAvoy as lead man gives a tremendous performance of a restrained but passionate man. consulta online medico online pediatra online medico online doctor online dermatologo online veterinario online veterinario online psychologist online consulta online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online psicologo online doctor online psicologo online abogado online abogado online I was not as convinced by Keira Knightley's performance and am not sure that her acting has the mature edge to capture the social nuances of the times that McAvoy did so successfully. Do not see this film if you like fast paced films and rapid plot development! This is not a film for the pop video generation. If however you like character development and a plot that unravels at a pace that allows you to be immersed in the atmosphere of the film then I can highly recommend Atonement as one of the best films that I have seen this year.