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by Ian McEwan
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
Bucking the general critical raves going on for this film, I have to report that my very high expectations were crushed by this annoying depiction of adolescent jealousy and lost love. From the standpoint of adaptation from Ian McEwan's novel (see left column), while consistently praised elsewhere, it can't be considered well done with so much peripheral material drowning the essence of the drama in literary bloat. From the standpoint of movie story-telling, the effectiveness is further destroyed with so many flashbacks within flashforwards, you need a dramamine pill to stomach the turbulence.
Now that I've gotten that off my chest, and turning to the film's many positive elements, we have the romantic tension developed by two of England's finest players. They electrify the atmosphere of high privilege among the country's idle rich in the 1930s upper class. The film itself is clothed in magnificent visuals (by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) that capture the range of settings from lushly decorous to war torn decimation.
The story turns on thirteen-year old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) and her hyperactive imagination coupled with an unformed standard of conduct. Correctly chanelled, her fertile imagination enables her to write a play that elicits praise and encouragement from mother Emily (Harriet Walter). Marshalling a cast to perform her play for dinner that summer night in the family estate, she rounds up the Quinceys, three houseguests, for a "rehearsal." But Lola, a sexy young red-headed girl of Briony's age, and her twin brothers Pierrot (Felix von Simson) and Jackson (Charlie von Simson) are less than cooperative. The "cast" seizes the first opportunity to break free of Briony's grasp.
Briony's fervid imagination is sparked, later, when she observes her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the housekeeper's son, in front of the fountain, some hundred or so yards off. Briony is scandalized by her misreading of the events she is witnessing.
But, she's is at least partly right is surmising that Cecilia is a threat to her crush on Robbie. When Cecilia and Robbie finally admit their feeling for each other and consummate their pent up passions by having sex in the study, Briony discovers them and is crushed by what she imagines a betrayal.
Later, brother Leon returns home with a friend, sophisticated Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch-- for real!) making for lively conversation around the dinner table. Dinner is interrupted with the announcement that the twins have run away (Biony's "cast"). Robbie, Leon, Paul and Lola immediately set out to scour the grounds, with Briony following up. After some traipsing in the woods, it's she who makes the first discovery, and it's a whopper.
She has interrupted what appears to be a rape. The man runs off without disclosing his identity, while the victim -- red-headed Lola -- turns to face Briony.
The police are called. The men return from their search empty-handed. Except for Robbie. When asked about what she had seen, Briony, submitting to her narcissistic impulse for revenge, fingers Robbie as the rapist. Some time later Robbie returns with the twins in tow. But it's too late. The adults, including the coppers, buy Briony's accusation without much thought. In a shameful (and way too doubtful) act of gross official incompetence, Robbie is disgraced, pretty much for life. Unfortunately, from a dramatic standpoint, the impact is dissipated by the inescapable feeling that it's based on literary fakery.
Despite the insubstantiality of the evidence, he is convicted and jailed. With Word War II now raging, he's given the opportunity to be released early if he's willing to volunteer for the army and fight in France. Before shipping out he finds Cecilia in London working as a nurse. Feelings haven't changed but it's time for him to leave. "Come back to me, Robbie," she implores.
As an eighteen-year old, Briony (now Romola Garai), following in her sister's footsteps as a nurse, harbors great regrets and a driving need to atone for her lie. The remainder of the film is comprised of the remains of these lives, with long stretches of peripheral details that seem intended to create a literary mystique. Without this indulgence, the film could easily have been edited down to a neat 100 minutes without so much drift from the essential story line.
In its mood-seeking diversions, I'm reminded of Terry Malick's "The New World" more than I am director Joe Wright's splendid "Pride & Prejudice." Audience reactions are likely to be as divided, with some filmgoers applauding the poetic passages and others less tolerant of them. Obviously, I side with the latter.
Knightley remains the world class romantic lead with her full resource of passion and emotional fullness. The camera loves this beauty, and the wardrobe, hair styling and makeup departments do their part to present it in full splendor. This is a girl to die for, in every fictional sense imaginable.
After his proven skills in "The Last King of Scotland," lightweight comedies from Blighty such as "Starter for 10" and others, I consider this McAvoy's first grown-up role. As good as he is in all technical senses, however, he doesn't quite develop the level of passion or magnetic command to inflame the romance and deepen its tragedy. He lacks the ideal dash and screen presence of, say, Leonardo DiCaprio in "Blood Diamond," which the full realization of Wright's movie calls for. Cinematic intelligence he has in spades, though, and it carries him throughout.
Even those who become enchanted with the film's modal style (aided and abetted by Dario Marianelli's classy score) will find captivation receding in the cold light of dawn and objectivity. Why wasn't there more focus put on the legal ramifications of the lie that put the tragic injustice into motion? In screenwriter Christopher Hampton's version, at least, (and possibly the book's) the calculation apparently was that the girl's later realization of the magnitude of her lie's consequences was justice enough and would rescue the premise from dime novel melodrama.
I think not, and the finale, with Vanessa Redgrave as the elderly, successful novelist that Briony becomes, compounds the dissatisfaction in quirky style, leaving what we have here as little more than pulp fiction with the overgloss of excellent production values and performances. Cleansing by self atonement doesn't hack it, and the resolution provided is superficial at best.
~~ Jules Brenner