Saturday, March 22, 2008


2007, UK/France, directed by Joe Wright

Several of the reviews of Ian McEwan's source novel - I haven't read the novel itself yet - suggest that McEwan references Evelyn Waugh's most celebrated novel Brideshead Revisited; both books take place across different time periods, and use the Second World War in crucial ways to mark the end of a particular period in English life. Joe Wright's film adaptation makes the connection much more explicit, evoking the English country house of the 1930s as a place of almost prelapsarian innocence, emphasized by the lushly coloured visuals (gorgeously shot by Seamus McGarvey), in much the same splendid manner that Waugh later confessed he had mixed feelings about.

As in his previous adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Wright's camera is extremely mobile, yet despite what seems occasionally to be a whirl of movement there's an forceful sense of the languid English summer enjoyed by those of means; scenes filmed by a pond, or a pivotal sequence by a fountain, use light and sound to conjure up a headily sensuous atmosphere that foreshadows later events.

Throughout the film, Wright is concerned to get inside the heads of his characters - whose perceptions of events often differ in crucial ways from the realities they are observing - and it's refreshing that he avoids reliance on the voiceover, often used in more respectful period adaptations, in favour of visual methods of evoking his characters' psychology. Thus, the much-discussed long take on the beach at Dunkerque seems to me not so much a distractingly virtuoso bit of filmmaking - though it's certainly virtuoso - but rather of a piece with the extraordinary strangeness of the setting, taking us into the mind of Robbie (James McAvoy) as he encounters the unimaginable, an experience further intensified by the fever under which he's labouring at the time. It's as convincing an insight into the workings of his mind at that point as the more obviously surreal sequence, shortly afterwards, when Robbie finds himself behind the screen in a movie theatre playing Marcel Carné's Quai des brumes, itself a film about the end of illusions.

The film also provides interesting depth to the cherished mythology of Dunkerque: while the heroism of the episode isn't called into question - as attested by the newsreel footage of the actual soldiers involved - the events are supplemented with a layer of grit, blood and drunkenness that gives a sense of the chaos and disillusionment of the withdrawal, a reality check for the legend.

[As a footnote, it's interesting how many reviews categorize Atonement in disparaging terms as "Oscar bait"; if that's the filmmakers' aspiration, they're on the wrong track, since rough-edged - or aspirationally rough-edged - films with American settings have dominated for the past few years.]

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States