Saturday, December 08, 2007

Atonement: a great example of layered screenwriting (head to head with "Golden Compass" on spiritual matters)


Of course, many of us (New Age people particularly) understand personal atonement as required by the Law of Karma. From a Christian perspective, only Jesus Christ can personally atone for all of our sins, and we find ourselves self-negotiation out of a maze of contradictions. I personally believe that we must atone for our wrongs and for unfair takings, and that how we are situated in the next life (in whatever universe) is affected by it. But, in this film, we’re reminded of how we can atone for the sins committed by others. It seems that Grace is necessary because no matter how hard we try, we cannot prevent our subordination by events we cannot prevent.

So it goes with this mesmerizing British film from Universal Focus Features and Working Title, “Atonement,” based on the novel by Ian McEwan, directed by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice). With hypnotic piano and orchestra music by Dario Marianelli (it vacillates between (C) major and minor in Mahlerian fashion “G—E Ab D# G—“ etc), it casts the spell of a Hitchcock thriller, with lots of close-ups (Wright eschewed widest aspect ration in order to keep a focus on the characters, even though many of the war scenes could have used it), and it turns out that the mystery in the story is in the reality of the events itself. As the film opens, talented 13-year-old girl Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) has written a perfunctory play (she types “The End” and typewriters in this period piece set between 1935 and 1940 really do have the social consequences of computers). By the end of the film, you won’t remember the name of the play. She gets her little twin brothers to rehearse it, all buttoned up; but then soon her imagination runs wild in a series of plot steps that require the moviegoer to pay attention to detail (the focused direction – no pun here – helps) to compare her later accusations with “reality.” Now much of her bad judgment, jealousy or vindictiveness (it’s hard to separate them) revolves around her teenage crush on groundskeeper Robbie (James McAvoy, who looks in this movie a little less than perfect in the midsection, and he smokes – that’s depressing), who is falling in love with his older (and more mundane) sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). There are several incidents that mince words and intimacy, and they are carefully set up. A crucial plot point has to do with Robbie’s playfully typing an “obscene” sentence (the camera lingers on the typeface here, a scene that would have wasted wide screen) and Briony’s accidentally finding it and delivering it. That sequence makes the point that in the physical world of English manor estates, mislaid letters or notes can be as dangerous as emails or social networking profiles today. Finally, the accusation comes, and so do the police. Briony even realizes that she could be misunderstanding things, but she has already been told by the headmistress that she did the right thing already.

At this point the film’s narration gradually moves out of real space. Robbie tells us that he was invited to join the Army to get out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit. (Here is the opportunity for Christian fundamentalism that the film wisely skips.) He sees Dunkirk, and in a series of scenes catches up with both Tallis girls. Briony has become a nurse (rather like Louise May Alcott) to atone for now what she realizes is a horrific sin. Gradually, we realize that the personal confrontations make less sense in the real plane (or brane).

The payoff, we learn, is that some of the denouement is layered itself into Briony’s last novel, as Vanessa Redgrave, soon to die of a dementia, is interviewed about her final novel. The effect is similar to the flashback that forms almost all of James Horner’s “Titanic.” Resolution is to be attained only imagination; in real life, there was only tragedy in the early days of the War, before the United States was present in Britain (where most World War II movies pick up).

The screenwriting concept itself is fascinating: to mix imagination with “reality” as if they were interchangeable because the writer himself or herself wants to change the world.

The trailers for the film summarize the “real” story pretty well, and the closing credits make it clear that Universal itself was pretty involved with the film. This movie is quite ambitious, and could have been distributed under Universal’s own “Valkyries” trademark. Starting in a platform release, it sold out at matinees today at Landmark’s E-Street downtown Washington DC.



The device of mixing "real life" narrative with events from an author's story has been tried before, often in "science fiction." In fact, Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" (2007, Samuel Goldwyn), following two nuclear attacks in Texas, gravitates toward a July 4 apocalypse in LA, but it is only gradually that we realize that some of the apocalypse comes from a circulating screenplay "The Power" by character Boxer Santoros (Dwayne Johnson), particular when Sean William Scott's character splits into doubles approaching a violent rendez vous, and Justin Timberlake (his character, that is)is just so plain goofy. Earlier, Kelly's "Donnie Darko" had experimented with imagination and reality. But also look at William Malone 's "FearDotCom" (2002, TriStar) where the police detectives go into a website, or Joseph Rusnak's "Thirteenth Floor" (1999, Columbia) where a virtual reality world replica of 1930s LA becomes quite circumscribed at the end. Of course, David Lynch played with ideas like this ("Lost Highway") as have some "puppet master" movies.

This weekend New Line’s latest pride and joy “The Golden Compass,” based on Philip Pullman’s novel opening his “Dark Trilogy”, opened in multiplexes this weekend. (New Line insinuates that it will reproduce the phenomenon of "Lord of the Rings" with this. Well, probably not.) This film also relates to the "faith card." Many evangelicals have challenged it’s “faith,” but I don’t think it is necessarily less honoring of Christianity than the Narnia Chronicles. True, souls don’t inhabit animal doubles that accompany people. But the idea of parallel universes connected by “dust” (branes in quantum physics) itself is interesting. After all, to exist, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the Islamic Paradise, etc. all have to exist in some location in some universe. God cannot change mathematics. The "alethiometer" reminds me of the astrolabe, a kind of ancient mechanical computer that is an interesting toy now.

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