Sunday, 31 July 2011

Sunday Openings: Atonement

I’ve had Atonement on my mind a great deal this past week ever since I saw it for the umpteenth time this past week. But, my appreciation for Atonement is not news to the blog. I’ve waxed on about the film, the performances, a particular scene and even the sex. But, Sunday Openings is relatively new and why not dedicate a week to the succinct brilliance of it? No, I don’t plan on doing a Sunday Opening for each film I’ve covered in Scene On A Sunday, but clearly my love for Joe Wright knows no bounds. I’m not one to shirk at films with massive lengths, my favourite film is almost three hours, but it’s impressive just how much information Hampton and Wright manage to deliver to us in a mere two hours running time – the opening is a fine paradigm for that brevity.

I’m a bit undecided as to where the opening ends, but I like to think of Dario Marianelli’s impressive score as a guide. So, I’ll stop the scene when he does.
Technically, the title card isn’t really part of the opening, but I love how the technical aspects of the film coalesce. The percussion and piano inspired score, in the vein of Briony’s typewriter, plays as the film’s title appears. It’s the small things like this which make me go crazy for Atonement.

I vaguely remember that back in 2007 when Atonement was to come out it was being touted as the next best romantic feature and there was a trailer released with Lifehouse’s “You and Me” playing over scenes from the film. I happen to love that song, but it’s such an odd concept because Atonement is such an odd film that it sort of defies genre-identification. It’s as much a class drama as it is a love story, as it is a war film, and so on. And, to add to the confusion Cecilia – our de factor lead (but, not really) is not who we open the film with. It’s Briony Tallis’ writing which we open with, but before we even get to Briony we have a shot of the Tallis house…sort of…

This shot of the model of the house with Briony’s “toys” is such a peculiar one to take.
And, it works excellently. Briony is such a precise individual that it makes sense that she has her toys set up in a manner that’s so exact. I’m never sure what to think of Briony – Ronan plays her as something diabolical in training, Garai plays her as an unlikely victim and Redgrave plays her as a misunderstood woman. The fact that the animals all seem to be bowing to her is a bit disconcerting, though.
And the way the camera revolves to find her, first from the back is not quite sinister, but it’s as if she’s being sized. It’s as if we’re being warned to keep our eyes on this girl.

And speaking of eyes...

The motif of Briony’s eyes in the film is such an important one. She’s the character tying the strands of the narrative together; it’s the things she sees which send the story hurtling into the direction it does.

We’re less than a minute into the film and what have we learned already? Briony is staggeringly meticulous for an adolescent. I’ll wager that vocally, perhaps, Saoirse’s performance is not an eight world wonder but her expressions and physicality are most impressive.

There’s a dizzying quickness as the piano begins to play and Briony begins her trek in search of whomever.

Herein lays one of the fine things about Atonement. Another director might have followed Briony closely, amidst a gamut of tight shots, as she traversed through the house, but by having the camera at such a distance from her not only do we notice how almost militant she seems, we get to take in the lavish Tallis house.

The quickness with which the camera moves adds to the urgency, although we don’t know what that urgency represents.

This shot for example, we only see the maid working in passing. Wright doesn’t address the issue holistically, but class issues are so important (for example: Cecelia’s withering gaze to the boy who brings in Leon’s suitcase). This is a strictly stratified house, and all this with just a few shots.

I just love how colour coded the house is.

Briony: “I finished my play.”

I can’t overstate the importance of Grace Turner here. Brenda Blethyn is such a brilliant actor, and the Turner/Tallis hierarchy only underscores the density of the class issues. Grace’s almost maternal attitude to Briony, which is betrayed half a day later.

Grace: “Well, then.”
Briony: “Have you seen mommy?”

Grace: “She’ll be in the drawing room, I expect.”

Cook: “I hope you won’t be getting in our way today, Miss Briony. We’ve got a big dinner to prepare.”

I love that blink-and-you’ll miss it exchange there, between the two. There’s a wealth of history there.

And, more trekking...
Enter Robbie...

Isn’t that a gorgeous shot? I’ll live the loss to No Country for Old Men, but I’ll never understand how Atonement didn’t pick up recognition for its technical aspects – Art Direction, Costumes, Editing, Cinematography.

Robbie: “Hello, pal. I hear you’re putting on a play.”

Briony: “Who told you?”
She looks so wistful in that first shot, there. Despite the ostensible iniquity of her imminent actions, Briony is really just a girl and it’s in these registers that I love Saoirse’s performance the most.

Robbie: “Jungle drums.”

Briony: “Will you come and see it?”

Isn’t it amusing how in that first shot she seems as if she’s actually considering the reality of those tell-tale jungle drums? She’s too young to be coquettish, but Briony’s physical behaviour in this season is just perfect. I don’t know how Saoirse manages to exude that bashfulness that comes with a childhood crush, along with a strange sort of maturity – but she does it beautifully.

Robbie: “I’m not sure that would be quite-”

Yet another line in the opening filled with gravity (we’re now about two minutes in). Why wouldn’t it be “quite –” for him to come to Briony’s play? I think a good opening should set up a slew of potential avenues for its story to take, without making the eventual one seem illogical. I’ll credit Hampton with one of the finest screenplays of the eighties (Dangerous Liaisons) and his condensation of the novel is tremendous.

Briony, too, seems to be wondering what he could possibly mean. And thinking back, or forward, I wonder if such an unobtrusive snub all exist as build-ups to Briony’s shirking of Robbie. He’s saying he can’t come because of propriety, she’s possibly hearing he can’t come because he doesn’t want to. Of course, those unfamiliar with the story have no idea what we’re headed to – or why this scene might be significant.

Robbie: “Why don’t you let me read it? You used to make beautiful bound copies of all your stories. I kept them all.”

Another little good thing about the opening, with the short moment with Grace earlier and this one Hampton and Wright manage to give us a flashback with hoaky dialogue or actual flashbacks. The fact that the Turners and the Tallis’ were so close isn’t unimportant, but it’s not thrust into the narrative in an awkward manner.

Briony: “I still want you to come.”

Robbie: “Let’s see...”

Briony: “I have to go now.”

I guess she remembers why she left her room in the first place...

Briony: “Mommy, I need you.”

You can’t expect me to write a post on Atonement without some fastidious overreaching search for subtext. I’ve always wondered at that line, “Mommy, I need you.” The Tallis parents in Atonement are almost absent. We never see Mr. Tallis and we only see a few short scenes with Mrs. Tallis – reading the play immediately after this, lying tiredly listening to the cousins, her snobbish quasi-monologue at dinner and Robbie’s arrest. Sure, it’s one day, but she doesn’t seem like the ideal mother and I love that it’s Briony who had the line. With all her conflicting feelings, I’d say definitely needs “mommy”.

Harriet Walter gives such an interesting characterisation of Mrs. Tallis. Even as she praises Briony's work here, there's a striking sense that she's just disinterested in it all. The film works because even those actors playing with a line or two convince you of a wealth of issues lying beneath.

Mrs. Tallis: “Stupendous, it’s stupendous darling – your first play.”

Briony: “Do you think so? Do you think Leon will like it?”

Mrs. Tallis: “Well, of course he will. The Trials of Arabella, by Briony Tallis.”
 Kristin Scott Thomas and Emily Watson were both approached for the role, and I could definitely see both of them playing this stoic English mother.

I hate to finish the opening without touching on Cecilia’s first scene (which comes almost immediately after this), Keira’s so lovely here. But, I wager that those two and a half minutes are the actual opening. Because it opens with the Tallis house, and ends with it.

And, I’d say that it’s as effective as needs be. Of course, I think every second in the film is as effective as necessary.
What do you think of Atonement’s opening? Are you even convinced that the opening ends here?


Ryan T. said...

You talking about Atonement and your love for it is one of my favorite things about your blog. I'm very tempted to just pop the movie in again to relish the awesomeness.

Nicholas Prigge said...

I second Ryan T. All your "Atonement" stuff is gold. Gold!

I've always felt the film's primary theme is imagination vs. reality and I think the beginning opens & ends with the two shots of the Tallis home to illustrate that - the pretend version and then the real version.

Rich said...

No lie... I'm reading the book right now. It's a bit slow going, but it's alright so far. I had a brief exchange with a woman I met while waiting in line for a movie about the book and she was praising Ian McEwen to the heavens.

anahita said...

ooh I need to rewatch this! xx

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

ryan aaaaw, that's such a nice thing to say. i think i tend to go overboard, but at least you don't think so.

nick ah yes, imagination vs reality would make for a brilliant theme. interesting that we get the imaginary version then the real version.

rich the book is more expansive, and not as succinct so compared to the movie it definitely goes on for a bit. it's lovely, though.

anahita it definitely wouldn't hurt to rewatch it.

TomS said...

Oh, that typewriter used as percussion...just awesome. This was far and away my favorite movie in the year it was released. Seems like it got sort of unfairly bashed...

Paolo said...

Brenda Blethyn was only in this movie for two scenes. Good God that is not fair!

I'm thankful that it isn't Best Picture because I'm so cool now but back in 2007 I wanted this to win so bad.

Also, the book's original ending is just as filmable as the version we ended up with.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I loved this opening, with the miniaturized mansion and all the animals leading to if she was God leading them to the ark...and I loved the typewriter used for percussion in this scene. This was a lovely opening and told you all about briony...even if you didn't know it at the time.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

tom totally feel you there. it's one of those movies that seemed to be the victim of significant loathing, which i find odd because it doesn't really seem to have an "agenda" or anything.

paolo are you trying to tell me that it's not cool to love atonement? heretic! brenda is in 4 scenes (hee). i love that scene where robbie is taking away and she's there screaming with her umbrella. madness.

yojimbo so true. that's exactly what i love about this movie, because after knowing all that's going you can watch it again and realise how all the signs were there.