Rightwing Film Geek

A godless atonement

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It can very frustrating to read a critic, one you generally admire, get why a movie (or something about a movie) is great, but see it as evidence for why it’s bad. Two critics I really like did it with ATONEMENT, the film whose Golden Globe win makes it an Oscar frontrunner, and one I’d be elated to see win.¹

I said when I saw ATONEMENT at Toronto, that I would later discuss the ending, which had me completely broken. It did it again when I saw it on the opening day of its commercial release last month. Back in September, I partially wanted to finish up ASAP at a Toronto Internet cafe at 3am, and I partially wanted to recommend the movie as heartily as I could without spoiling it for others, since I went in completely tabula-rasa myself and think that a key to why this film hasn’t left my memory in months.

You have been warned.

At the end of the second act, Briony is told what she has to do to atone for her lies that put Robbie in jail and then later on the front lines and that estranged Cecilia from their family. The film flashes forward 50 years, from Briony sitting alone on a train to Briony as a famous elderly novelist. And we learn the truth that turns the movie inside out — everything we’ve been watching is a novel written by Briony, who is now giving a TV interview on it.

atonement3shot.jpgThe reunion that Robbie and Cecilia had that we see, and the promise of the reversal and clearing of Robbie’s name that was promised in that novel’s third act — it didn’t occur in “real life” and couldn’t have because they were both killed in the war (Robbie at Dunkirk, Cecilia in the Blitz). The movie closes on what we assume is the close of Briony’s novel, of Robbie and Cecilia in a beachfront cottage with a view of the White Cliffs of Dover. (I wonder if Americans realize how archetypal that is to a Briton, particularly in a World War II context.) “I gave them in fiction the happy ending they couldn’t have in life. That’s my atonement. It was all I could do,” Briony says (more or less) of what will be her last novel as she will soon slip into irreversible dementia.

So this is the latest “twist” movie, though because ATONEMENT is not a crime or heist movie, I was completely, utterly unprepared for it. It’s a fairly common trick, in fact — the “unreliable narrator” — but it’s made effective by the fact that we don’t even really realize that the film actually HAS a narrator, much less that it’s a character within the story. But this is not an unfair trick, because, on reflection and second viewing, we see that some details of ATONEMENT’s style actually had set up the-film-to-that-point as discourse. It’s not just Briony is shown in the first act to be a precocious writer and in the second act to be writing a novel hinted to be about the first act. It’s also that the first things we see are a typewriter and typing (shades of another of my favorite recent movies, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, which also turns inside out upon the discovery of discourse). And the first things we hear are the familiar clackety-clack of a manual typewriter — a sound that never entirely leaves us because (it seems) scorer Dario Marianelli uses typewriter sounds on the score continuously. It made for a bracing score but, unbeknownest to the inattentive viewer, it also signifies that we are seeing something being typed, i.e., Briony’s novel. Continue reading

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January 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 3 Comments

TIFF Capsules — Day 7

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IT’S A FREE WORLD …, Ken Loach, Britain — 5
This is mostly Loach in his “good” mode, staying off his soapbox and with the leftistical pinko points being made by the events rather than speechifying. Unfortunately, he didn’t make a very good film in his “good” genre. He does, typically, get a great central performance from the unknown Kierston Wareing as a worker for a labor-recruitment agency named Angie who loses her job and decides to start her own immigrant-employment service. She’s smart, wily and has an entrepreneurial spirit — a kind of Anglo-Saxon Rosetta with more about her head. What makes Angie so compelling is that the second-level character touches are all there — her defensiveness toward her father, say, and the fact that she does try to help people. When it’s not against her interests, that is. There is also one terrific “character” turn, by Raymond Mearns as the Glaswegian bartender Andy, whose “yooz wummun” speech is just a joy to listen to for its working-class tinfoil-hat quality.

But, and this is about the last thing one would expect to say about a Loach film, the script really isn’t sufficiently focused. Subplots like the Polish boyfriend just sort of peter out. And there is a crime that takes place in the next-to-last scene that is simply ridiculous — both narrativewise (it happens out of nowhere, but is resolved far too quickly and the scene ends on a line that the Coen Brothers blew away in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) and detailwise (a criminal would hardly give *this* speech under *these* circunstances; plus it’s as economically silly as most Loach soapboxing). And that’s it, plus an obviously symmetrical coda; the film doesn’t so much end as stop. And the bad Loach occasionally rears his head, e.g., Angie asks an Iranian family why the had to leave and the only thing clear in the sound mix is the father blaming the US overthrow of Mossadeq in 1953. The man and wife in this family look to be in their 30s.

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THE LAST MISTRESS, Catherine Breillat, France — 4
My favorite Breillat so far, but that really is saying only that THE LAST MISTRESS didn’t want to make me claw my eyes out (ROMANCE made me want to mutilate myself in other ways). The big-budget period piece (an adaptation of a Barbey d’Aureville novel about an aristocratic marriage and a Spanish prostitute whom the man can’t let go of) does somewhat rein in Breillat’s perversity or pervertedness. And she has an interesting theme — how hatred and jealousy can fuel romance and (especially) sex. There’s a scene in which a character slashes another across the face that draws blood in more ways than one. But remember when I said “somewhat rein in.” Somewhat. Asia Argento still cannot act, but she have very large and round boobs, a fact of which Breillat constantly reminds us. While showing Roxanne Mesquida’s flat chest for comparison. The pervs and the feminists will no doubt form a Coalition of the Willing around this film.

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ATONEMENT, Joe Wright, Britain — 9 (changed from 8 )
Organizing my notes for this, I realized just how strong ATONEMENT is and how completely brilliant is the third act, hence the upgrade. Saying why this film is so great will require giving away the entire plot. I profited immensely from going in knowing nothing of the novel (something Wright’s first film obviously had no hope of) and having at least forgotten about a certain member of the cast (brainlock from seeing 5 films a day does have its advantages). ATONEMENT opens in theaters shortly, so I’ll speak vaguely. The film is segmented into three easily definable acts. The first, set in a 1935 British manor, is great. The second, following several characters from the first act through the years of World War II, is pretty good but we’re starting to feel things get rote. The third act is a mind-blower that turns the whole movie inside out.

The first contains most of the virtues people will expect — Keira Knightley will get most of the praise (and hopefully a cheeseburger) as Cecilia, but James McAvoy as the social-climber/gardener Robbie persuades me for the first time that he’s something more than a boyish face. The two have an incredibly erotic sex scene while hardly taking off any clothes (they’re in the manor library … appearances, people), while bathed in not-quite expressionistic dark shadows. And the kids are the best of all, note-perfect in their desires to be more than kids. Saorise Ronan as aspiring writer Briany, Cecilia’s sister, and Juno Temple as Lola both think they are more mature than they are (milked for comedy in Lola’s case) and both make the mistake of their lives, in different cases. By the second act, Briany now played by TIFF Acting MVP Romola Garai, has come to realize her mistake but the war effort and residual anger block her efforts to come back to terms. This contains a shot, of the evacuation at Dunkirk that’s already causing sneers and unfavorable comparison to CHILDREN OF MEN. But I didn’t “spot” its length (maybe because I wasn’t primed to), plus it’s more of a look-around within a defined space shot, more in common with the opening shot of THE PLAYER than CoM.

The third act. I will come back to this capsule later (and edit accordingly) … probably when the fest is over. But there will be SPOILERS aplenty. Suffice to say fernow that the last shot, of a cottage on the white cliffs of Dover is absolutely gorgeous. And absolutely heartbreaking.

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A GIRL CUT IN TWO, Claude Chabrol, France — 4
I have to come clean and admit that Chabrol just may be a blind spot of mine. I have seen about seven of his films but have never really been blown away by one (LE BOUCHER came closest). This film has a few funny epigrams like “Old age is when you start saying ‘I never felt so young’,” but it passed before my eyes for 100 minutes without leaving a single emotional mark on me. It’s not awful; professionally done in every way, the events happen, the plot resolves itself, the movie’s over and I’m left shrugging. I think it may be that Chabrol is neither a distinctive stylist nor a great story-teller nor does he have a body of work strongly united by theme or genre (all my favorite directors have at least one of those; most more). Or perhaps that GIRL, like many of his movies, has events that center on a murder and so can sound like some kind of semi-thriller. But the pacing and tension are just too tepid for GIRL to be considered anything but a failure on those genre terms.

September 15, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 3 Comments

A story this good is hard to ruin

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Joe Wright, Britain, 2005, 7

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel in possession of a good reputation must be in want of a film adaptation.”
Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice” (sorta)

Why?

Why do we need another adaptation of another Jane Austen novel? Particularly since this version of “Pride and Prejudice” looked so pedestrian and rote from the trailer and casting – Keira Knightley has never set my world on fire; and I love Judi Dench as much as the next guy, but must British casting directors be so unimaginative with the grande dame roles. The Internet Movie Database gives nine versions with this exact title (thus excluding the modernized “Bridget Jones Diary”), and with just a decade since the definitive 5-hour BBC miniseries with Colin Firth as Darcy, this film had “unnecessary” stamped all over it.

But really, that’s like asking “why marry” to Austen’s famous opening line about men in possession of a good fortune. After seeing this latest “Pride and Prejudice,” I was asking “why not?” After all, it’s only the greatest novel ever written in English and only the work that has pretty much defined the modern romantic comedy template for nearly 200 years. There’s nothing despicable about wanting to see our favorite novels dramatized and seeing what real-life actors and directors can do with (or against) the images in your mind. While driving, I often listen to an unabridged Books on Tape of Irene Sutcliffe reading “Pride and Prejudice.” Heck, I even liked the semi-Bollywood Aishwarya Rai film “Bride and Prejudice” from earlier this year. As for the novel itself, well, however little known its feelings or views may be, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adaptation teams that it is considered as their rightful property.

Austen wrote such a corker of a story, so rich on so many levels, that as long as you’re reasonably faithful, you almost can’t completely screw it up – there’ll at least be a decent plot as skeleton for whatever skin and muscle the film-makers choose to wrap around it. And it is another truth not-so-universally acknowledged that our memories of the original and other adaptations fool us by “filling in” gaps and firming up thin moments.

As for the story, it’s mostly all there, though obviously some things are minimized – we don’t get much of a sense of the three younger girls until Lydia follows her heart and the results become central to the plot. For about 30 minutes, in fact, “Pride and Prejudice” quickly slashes through the compressed plot events – Jane’s rain-swept trip to Netherfield is hardly seen and the whole illness episode takes about a minute. But the choices made are generally smart. For example, Austen’s immortal, yet completely uncinematic, two opening paragraphs are entirely skipped in favor of a lengthy track through the Bennet home, establishing their material circumstances (think the start of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”). The book’s first dialogue – Mrs. Bennet eagerly telling her husband about the arrival of Bingley – is briefly overheard and swiftly out the side of the camera’s eye as it wanders through the house.

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ppsisters.jpgThis “Pride and Prejudice” is filled with this sort of shot – it’s easily the most cinematically flashy of the decade-long string of Austen adaptations. The camera is constantly moving, catching things – like Mary’s bad piano playing – on the fly. The film’s high point (I thought the same of the 1995 miniseries) is probably the dance between Darcy and Elizabeth, which becomes a serious sideways-accusatory conversation. Here, the camera twirls along with the pair, as if we’re dancing too and eavesdropping as Darcy and Elizabeth become more absorbed (and not in a good way) in each other and each other’s opinion. Director Joe Wright literally erases the other dancers – first in sound and finally in images until it’s just the two of them “quarreling” (to the extent that people quarreled publicly in Regency England) all alone and then taking their final positions. In visual look, this film’s scruffy gentility (and that’s the Bennets’ status as “poor gentry”) most resembles the Austen world of “Persuasion.” There’s more rain and dirt here than we often get in British period adaptations. The Bennets’ home is kinda drab (we see the shabby cracks in the walls and hear the squeaks in the floorboards) and not too far removed from people who worked the land – chickens in the kitchen, pigs in the backyard, and all that jazz.

There’s just no way around some of the ways “Pride and Prejudice” is unfilmable. It’s not just the felicity of Austen’s language – at least some dialogue is transferable (though much of the dialogue in the novel is irrelevant, if often funny or relevant via its irrelevance). It’s that Austen simply *told* most of the plot, often by describing people’s interior states, particularly the most important characters’ states. Austen’s characters also often wrote letters to one another, which are simply reproduced. Those are two techniques cinema resists, even the frequent attempts to reproduce the letter content as conversation. And inevitably, one will have disagreements with the characterizations as presented. Jane Bennet here is not as obviously good-souled as I see her; Bingley’s a bit stupider; I see Mr. Collins a bit more silly and flamboyantly self-absorbed than Tom Hollander’s loser with a constipated-face act; and Donald Sutherland just doesn’t fit the avuncular quality of Mr. Bennet’s weariness.

ppblethyn.jpgOther actors do much better, often simply because the casting is right. As Mrs. Bennet, Brenda Blethyn can play this kind of talkative “silly old biddy” role in her sleep. Jena Malone only gets a couple of scenes as Lydia, but she’s surprisingly effective as a pre-modern modern girl. Dench is just a compulsive addiction. I may groan at seeing her typecast (she’s Lady Catherine de Bourg, for those of you in Rio Linda). But those lips, those eyes – even those wrinkles – she just is regal imperiousness.

I had heard nothing but bad things about Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy, and his performance is definitely at the stiff end. But somehow that seemed right for Darcy’s proud diffidence, as if he can’t be bothered to be here. And MacFadyen does loosen up a bit toward the end – as he should. As for Knightley, she at least is the right age to play Elizabeth Bennet (for a camp classic, see 35-year-old Greer Garson in the 1940 MGM version). Knightley’s a bit gigglier than Jennifer Ehle was in 1995, but her Elizabeth is a woman so intelligent and such an observer that the outside world are mere characters in her own private joke. In other words, she personifies Austen’s ironic sense of humor, if a bit bluntly. But it also plays well against MacFadyen’s muffled Darcy. As if each performance, like a real marriage, needs the other to play off it well.

While the 1995 miniseries has entered the vernacular as the “Colin Firth” version, this one will be known as the “Keira Knightley” because it’s her joyful performance, and her joyful qualities as a person, that centers and defines the film. Which is why adaptations also, like marriages, need contrasts to play off each other.

So … that’s why.
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Originally published at The Fact Is.

December 8, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment