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Monday, 18 February 2008

Review: Atonement

Eyewear is of two minds about award-winning Atonement - just as the film is, about itself. On the one hand, I admire the mise-en-scene, and the lush "hottest day of the summer in the Manor House" section, which comprises roughly the first 40 minutes of the film (more, in flashback, especially the diving-drowning scene). I am tempted to call it a "tromp lawn" film - for it plays with the mind's eye, surely, as much as it does on the filmgoer's easy sense of genre. I suspect, though, the film tries to have its Eton Mess and eat it, too - with a silver spoon.

By this, I mean, it is all very well to try and throw prisms and postmodernity at Brideshead Revisited type visual tropes (languid beautiful young things, army fatigues) - and, like The French Lieutenant's Woman - "offer" different endings - with a knowing wink that, well, you know, this Upper Class Porn (the tooting yellow car, the Remains of the Day decor, the flappers, the elegantly lit fags in every scene) is being twisted, exposed, for the shallow surface of things it is. Vile Bodies for vile body's sake. Possibly - but director Joe Wright has managed to evoke a plausibly desirable Utopia that is the Tallis home, with its Chariots of Fire lawns and servants (as he must to establish the postlapsarian descent into France) - and so deliciously conveys the love in the library (Paolo and Francesca, doomed Dantean lovers, reading no more that day), with its erotics of sinewy backs, slim napes, thin collar bones, and parted knees (as if this was Emmanuel At Cambridge) - that it is hard to see this as a deconstruction of anything, so much as a loving collage of all the best of that Merchant-Ivory realm.

The British always do Irony except when it comes to trying to win an Oscar; there is no I in Hollywood. So, yes, very beautiful, very well filmed - but somehow, horribly contrived. At the core of this is a premise that I don't buy for one pencil-thin-moustached moment, and which is dear to Ian McEwan's heart - namely, how writers lie, and how all fiction is some sort of manipulative game, with characters tossed about like dolls by a spoiled little girl, albeit a little girl with malicious genius. That's a vision of the Muse worthy of Stephen King, but hardly convincing.

It is true, writers must have a sliver of ice, etc. - and they do murder to create, etc. - but the sad-eyed ancient writer at the end of the film stares out with unblinking blue unblinded yet Oedipal eyes - her 21st book her last. Is this meant to be the Ur-novelist, or just one version of the creative process? There are alternate visions of the creative art of writing - Heaney, for one, speaks of redress; no Larkinian religious wounding for him. Perhaps poets are less harmful, in the long run, than fiction writers, who can concoct whole sprawling set pieces for their poor players (in the film, Atonement, the camera whirls around the wartime beach for a bravura five-minutes, as if grasping at Welles for some nous - ironic because in general the WWII scenes seem rushed, as if the budget was running out - hardly a Homeric journey in 20 minutes - or is that showing fear in a handful of dust?). What the little girl with the typewriter did was bad, of course - and, like some writers she both mistook something she saw, and then used it for a better story - but also, hardly representative - or, is this finally about art's ruling class, not its privates?
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