Atonement

The nominations:

  • Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Saoirse Ronan
  • Achievement in Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood (Art Direction); Katie Spencer (Set Decoration)
  • Achievement in Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
  • Achievement in Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran
  • Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score): Dario Marianelli
  • Best Motion Picture of the Year: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
  • Adapted Screenplay: Christopher Hampton

The Black-and-White:

The nominations came out at 5:30am PST on Tuesday, January 22, and by 7pm the same evening we were in the theatre, ready to watch Atonement, clearly an Academy favorite with 7 nominations. Let the games begin!!!

To start: it’s not a bad film. In fact, overall, it was a very acceptable picture. It’s strengths, which I will expand upon below, included gorgeous cinematography, epic music, clever editing and Vanessa Redgrave. The fatal flaws were the anemic story, and the lack of any chemistry between the characters.

Here is the IMDB synopsis of the film:

In 1935, 13-year-old fledgling writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) and her family live a life of wealth and privilege in their enormous mansion. On the warmest day of the year, the country estate takes on an unsettling hothouse atmosphere, stoking Briony’s vivid imagination. Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the educated son of the family’s housekeeper, carries a torch for Briony’s headstrong older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Cecilia, he hopes, has comparable feelings; all it will take is one spark for this relationship to combust. When it does, Briony — who has a crush on Robbie — is compelled to interfere, going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. Cecilia and Robbie declare their love for each other, but he is arrested — and with Briony bearing false witness, the course of three lives is changed forever. Briony continues to seek forgiveness for her childhood misdeed. Through a terrible and courageous act of imagination, she finds the path to her uncertain atonement, and to an understanding of the power of enduring love.

OK.

Let’s start with the bad: it’s difficult to know which was worse – the plot or the lack of chemisty between the characters. The problem with the story is that, frankly, even though some unfortunate things are happening to the two young lovers, you just don’t care. We are supposed to feel bad when, falsely accused Robbie goes to jail for a rape he did not commit, and his fleeting relationship with society girl Cecilia (who knows of his innocence) is forever sundered. On paper, it seems like I should care, I mean, that’s a tragedy, right? And a whole bunch of nasty things happen to the lovers, and they both die in the war — jeepers, that should be enough to make one weep, right?

It wasn’t. In fact, when we saw the movie we heard one male member of the audience snorting in derision. And before you say that maybe this is just a man-thing, and that chicks would dig it (chick-flick), let me add that I saw the movie with two women, and they both had the same guffawing response.

Maybe it was the cliche aspect of the story: a poor boy in love with rich girl; fleeting stolen sex in a library; a jealous, spoiled little sister; a crime he did not commit; lovers separated by war, and love forever unrequited; deathbed atonement. I’ve seen this movie before.

And sadly Keira Knightley and James McAvoy didn’t do anything to help us care. Their interactions were stoic. Their performances solid. But they gave nothing that invited us into their soles, and helped us feel for their misfortunes, or wish that the tide would turn for them. They were, simply, present in the movie, but not much else. The Academy got it right by offering no acting nods to them.

On the other hand, the cinematography was breathtaking. A simply gorgeously shot movie. If you read some of my blog posts from last year, you’ll see that cinematography is a category that sometimes, well, eludes me. Atonement makes it easy — seeing this movie, I understand what beautiful cinematography can be. Although I have yet to see the other nominees in this category, they have some very stiff competition in this film.

Vanessa Redgrave. Thank the gods for her. I suppose the plot twist at the end of the film that introduces her character was the reason the film got an adapted screenplay nod. Oooooo wasn’t Christopher Hampton (the screenwriter) clever with the final misdirection in the plot? Oh puhlease. It was a neat turn of the tale, I admit, but not nearly enough to save a completely bloodless story. No Oscar for you, Chris.

But I digress.

Vanessa Redgrave. She almost saved the movie. In the closing moments of the film, she brought in some measured passion, nuance, and complexity and almost, almost succeeded in leaving me feeling much better about the movie than I had for the previous 180 painful minutes (actually it was only about 176 minutes for me since I left for about 4 minutes in the middle to visit the washroom, and believe me, I was glad to have an excuse to leave the tedium, if only briefly).

So where does this leave Atonement with respect to the nominations?

Art Direction and Cinematography? Definitely a worthy contender.

Costume Design? Not overly memorable, I must admit. I’d vote no.

Adapted screenplay? It should have been a strong contender, but it just didn’t cut it. Nyet.

Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role? It’s not a mistake that I haven’t mentioned the performance by young Saoirse Ronan yet. She also was … present in the movie, but I never imagined that continuously looking vacuous and pouty was enough to garner an Oscar for acting. Definitely not.

Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score)? Atonement could win in this category. The film was purposely and clearly shot, directed and scored to be an “epic” film, and the music played its part successfully.

Best motion picture of the year? Absolutely not. Not for a film that didn’t garner a directing nomination, nor acting nods for either lead. And not for a story with characters for which, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

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