I didn't know what to expect from ATONEMENT. The film had received mostly glowing reviews and is one of the favourites to get a Best Picture nomination in next year's Oscars, but I had been worried that it would be another one of those stuffy and boring period romances filled with sheer pretentiousness and self-importance that would leave me wondering what all the fuss was about.
I haven't read the novel that this film is adapted from (Saturday's the only Ian McEwan book I've read), nor have I seen director Joe Wright's previous film, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Thus making the film even more of an enigma to me (I only know the plot rather vaguely)
In the end, I left the theater this afternoon impressed. But I really wasn't too emotionally affected or touched by the film despite it being a tragedy, I was more awed by the filmmaking, the acting and the production values. It's like reading a poetry and appreciate it for the beauty of its rhythm and flow, or the language used, before getting into its content.
ATONEMENT can be accused of featuring some really show-offy filmmaking methods, and it's unsurprising, since Joe Wright himself told the audiences at Hay Festival that he likes showing off. Shots are all well-composed, the warm colour palettes used during the first act of the film reflects the idyllic existence of an old English mansion during the early 20ths century, then a switch to cold colour palettes during the middle part of the film, to show the bleakness of war.
The stylish editing occasionally makes the film look like a music video, or strangely, reminds me of Wong Kar Wai (Robbie writing the letter, the interrogation scenes, the arrival of war patients at Briony's place etc.) And the memorable music score which occasionally uses typewriters as a musical instrument. It's just so well-crafted, yet... everything, even the art direction, seem to be begging for attention from audiences!
Because of this, the acting feels subdued instead, yet effective. Lesser actors would have destroyed this film. Having Ben Affleck as the lead would have turned this into PEARL HARBOUR, but since we have James McAvoy, he made us feel sorry for the tragic Robbie. Keira Knightley had always looked good, but in this film as Cecilia, she is transformed into a screen goddess (despite the fact that her character is really just the secondary female character of the story). Their star-crossed romance isn't something I've never seen before, but because their acting is so good that I ended up feeling their anguish, their yearning, without retching. Like I said, this could have easily turned into PEARL HARBOUR if I could barely feel anything for the star-crossed lovers.
A 5-minute-long continuous tracking shot is mentioned in most reviews of this film, and that scene, which shows the Dunkirk retreat, was definitely mindblowing. The camera weaves in and out from Robbie and two other soldiers as they make their way through the beach, gradually showing the whole situation. Sebastian had accused this scene in his review as a superficial display of virtuosity, more distracting than poetic, I belong to the camp that thinks of it as poetic. I believe the situation could be revealed via more conventional means, but it would lack the grandeur and majesty brought forth from this shot.
But here's my minor problem with the film. That particular scene was so incredible to me that I somehow felt that everything that occurred after that weren't that big a deal, including the supposedly heartbreaking ending with Vanessa Redgrave as the old Briony. Though the quality of the film fell from 'amazing' to 'good', it's still a noticeable drop. And I found myself mildly distracted by thoughts of that scene during the rest of the film.
It does make me wonder, however, whether normal audiences will notice anything when they watch the one-take scene. Sigh.
(Unrelated, but I find it mildly depressing that most people here actually like the horrible NATIONAL TREASURE 2 more than I AM LEGEND. When I see so many people in this country actually liking STARDUST and RUSH HOUR 3, I start to question my own tastes in films)