Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Puzzle of Atonement


Atonement rounded out my viewing of the best picture nominated films. I had put off seeing it for several reasons. Because it ranks as one of my favorite all-time books, I was hesitant to see it, because movies so seldom live up to books. (I guarantee if you pick it up, the first fifty pages or so will blow you away. I think McEwan is one of the best living writers.) Also, I had heard it was romantic in the way The English Patient was romantic--hyper art-directed, big strings, overwrought plot. I loathed The English Patient for these reasons.

Atonement was a surprise to me, therefore, in that it was remarkably un-self-conscious and carefully crafted, somewhat subtle in its beauty. Still, I could not engage emotionally, and I'm not sure why. It's a compelling story.

I saw it with Mike, though, and he loved it. Listening to him explain why he liked it, I appreciated it more. It has an interesting message about how one little thing, one small decision can change your whole life, and other's too. It's structure is innovative: forward then back, forward then back, and this works to create a certain tension. You don't know what's "real."

I felt enormously sympathetic towards the central characters, but their true time together was so brief, and their break-up so wrenchingly out of their control and protracted, that it just made me sort of sad and anxious, rather than hopeful, and isn't hope the foundation of real romance?

I will say that the ending with Vanessa Redgrave was brilliant. It kind of saved the movie for me. It made the movie truly contemporary, because it became a metafiction, a fiction about fiction. I would like to say I won't spoil it for you by explaining the ending, but the truth is, I'm too lazy and it's complicated, which is maybe the highest compliment I can pay this movie, which I expected to be fluff.

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