“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

Based upon Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, ”ATONEMENT” told the story about how the lies and misunderstandings of 13-year-old girl from a nouveau-riche English family affected the romance between her older sister and the son of the family’s housekeeper. The movie starred James McAvoy, Keira Knightely and Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan.

Comprised in four parts (like the novel), ”ATONEMENT” began with the 13 year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring novelist with a crush on Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s housekeeper. Robbie, along with Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) have both returned for the summer in 1935, following their education at Cambridge. Although both Robbie and Cecilia have been aware of each other at Cambridge, neither have not bothered to acknowledged their romantic interest in each other until recently. Also at the Tallis home for the weekend are Briony and Cecilia’s cousins – the 15 year-old Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) and her younger twin brothers – and their older brother Leon’s friend, the owner of a chocolate factory named Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch).

After Briony had witnessed several disturbing scenes – at least in her eyes – between Robbie and Cecilia, she comes to the conclusion that Robbie might be a sexual threat to Cecilia. Matters worsened when Briony joined the rest of the household in the search for Lola’s twin brothers, who had ran off in protest against their parents’ upcoming divorce. During the search for the twins, Briony witnessed the rape of her cousin Lola on the family estate by a man in a dinner suit. In the end, Briony claimed that the man she saw raping Lola was Robbie. Aside from Cecilia, the rest of the family believed Briony and Robbie ends up being sent to prison. At the outset of World War II, the British government released Robbie from prison on condition that he enlist as a private in the British Expeditionary Force. The rest of the movie, set during the early years of World War II, featured Robbie’s brief reunion with Cecilia – who had become a nurse – before his journey to France and the now 18 year-old Briony’s (Romola Garai) experiences as a wartime nurse.

”ATONEMENT” turned out to be a first-rate film about the destructive consequences of lies and illusions. Both director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton structured the movie in an unusual way in which not only did they allow moviegoers different conflicting perspective on certain incidents in the story – a prime example would be both Briony and Robbie’s different points-of-view on an incident regarding Cecilia’s retrieval of a broken vase from the estate fountain, but also quite cleverly hinted that certain aspects of story – especially the World War II segments – may have been colored by Briony’s own emotions and imagination. Also, Wright, along with art directors Ian Bailie, Nick Gottschalk and Niall Moroney; and production designer Sarah Greenwood did an excellent job in re-creating the rich atmosphere of Britain in the mid-1930s and 1940 and especially the Dunkirk expedition. I also have to commend Paul Tothill for the film’s superb editing. Tothill managed to give”ATONEMENT” a rhythmic style that matched the sound of a typewriter that added an illusionary sense to the unfolding story. In other words, by editing the story in a way that allowed certain scenes to be told from different points of view and added a sense of illusion, Tothill’s work gave the audience a false sense of illusion – at least for those who have never read McEwan’s novel.

I do have one quibble about the movie’s production . . . and I have to place the blame on Wright’s direction. I am referring the sequence that featured Robbie’s arrival at the beach at Dunkirk. At first glance, I was struck by the spectacle of Wright’s direction and Seamus McGarvey’s photography of the entire montage. Like I said . . . at first. Unfortunately, the montage ended up lasting several minutes too long. Not much time had passed when I found myself longing for it to end. I realized that Wright wanted to reveal the horror and chaos of war in all of its glory. But in the end, he simply went too far.

I must admit that I was not as impressed by most of the cast of ”ATONEMENT” as most critics and moviegoers. There was nothing earth-shattering about most of the performances . . . just good, solid work. Many moviegoers and critics had been surprised when both James McAvoy and Keira Knightley failed to earn Academy Award nominations. After watching the movie, I am not really surprised. Mind you, both gave very competent performances as the two lovers – Robbie and Cecilia But I had two problems with McAvoy and Knightley. One, their screen chemistry was not that explosive, considering the heated romance of their characters. It took a love scene inside the Tallis library to truly generate any heat between them. And two, I think their performances were hampered by Wright’s decision to allow the characters to speak in a staccato style that was prevalent in the movies of the 1930s and 40s in both Hollywood and Britain. I hate to say this, but McAvoy and Knightley never really managed to utilize this speech pattern with any effectiveness. There were times when their attempts to use it threatened to make their performances seem stiff and rushed. Perhaps they were simply too young and inexperienced.

On the other hand, I was very impressed by the three actresses who portrayed Briony Tallis at different stages in her life. Legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave portrayed a 70-80 year-old Briony, who had not only wrote a novel based upon the events surrounding Robbie’s arrest, but also confessed to the mistake she had committed decades earlier. And Romola Garai portrayed the character as an 18 year-old wartime nurse. Both actresses did an excellent job of portraying these older versions of Briony. But it was the young actress Saoirse Ronan who stole the movie as the 13 year-old Briony, whose naivety, jealousy toward Cecilia and Robbie’s budding romance and penchant for illusions led to devastating consequences for the romantic pair. Unlike McAvoy and Knighteley, Ronan gave a superb and natural performance as the confused and emotional Briony. It is not surprising that her work eventually earned BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress.

Before I end this review, I have to point out something that trouble me about ”ATONEMENT”. I might as well admit that I have never read McEwan’s novel . . . which is why the following storyline left me feeling confused. From what I have read about the film and the novel, Briony’s cousin, Lola Quincey, had been raped by the Tallis’ guest, Paul Marshall. And yet . . . she married the man, five years later. Why? Was it because she never knew that Marshall had been the one who had raped her? But judging from the hostile look she had given Briony at her wedding, Lola seemed well aware of that fact. Did Marshall actually raped her? Or had he seduced her that night the twins disappeared and Robbie was arrested? Perhaps the novel made the details of Lola’s storyline clearer. The movie left it murky. At least for me.

In the end, I must admit that ”ATONEMENT” proved to be one of the best movies released in 2007. Was it the best movie of that year? I have no idea. I have not seen ”NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”. At least not yet. But despite some of the movie’s flaws, director Joe Wright managed to lift the usual Merchant Ivory façade of Britain’s past and create an emotionally dark film from Ian McEwan’s novel.

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“LOUISIANA” (1984) Review

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“LOUISIANA” (1984) Review

Twenty-nine years ago, HBO had aired a three-part miniseries about the life and travails of a nineteenth century Southern belle named Virginia Tregan. The miniseries was called “LOUISIANA” and it starred Margot Kidder and Ian Charleson. 

Directed by the late Philippe de Broca, “LOUISIANA” was based upon the“Fausse-Riviere” Trilogy, written by Maurice Denuzière, one of the screenwriters. It told the story of Virginia’s ruthless devotion to her first husband’s Louisiana cotton plantation called Bagatelle . . . and her love for the plantation’s overseer, an Englishman named Clarence Dandridge. The story begins in 1836 in which she returns to her home in Louisiana after spending several years at school in Paris, Unfortunately, Virginia discovers that the Tregan family plantation and most of its holdings have been sold to pay off her father’s debts. Only the manor house remains. Determined to recoup her personal fortune, Virginia manipulates the breakup of the affair between her wealthy godfather, Adrien Damvillier and his mistress, Anne McGregor in order to marry him and become mistress of Bagatelle. Virginia also becomes frustrated in her relationship with Clarence Dandridge, who refuses to embark upon a sexual relationship with her.

During their ten-year marriage, Virginia and Adrien conceive three children – Adrien II, Pierre and Julie. Not long after Julie’s birth, Adrien dies during a yellow fever epidemic. Virginia hints to Clarence that she would like to engage in a serious relationship with him. But when he informs her that they would be unable to consummate their relationship, due to an injury he had sustained during a duel, Virginia travels to Paris for a year-long separation. There, she meets her second husband, a French aristocrat named Charles de Vigors. They return to Louisiana and Virginia gives birth to her fourth and final child – Fabian de Vigors. Virginia and Charles eventually divorce due to his jealousy of his wife’s feelings for Clarence and his affairs. Fabian, who feels left out of the Damvillier family circle, accompanies his father back to France. During the next ten to fifteen years, Virginia experiences the death of her three children by Adrien, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The story ended in either the late 1860s or early 1870s with Virginia using a trick up her sleeves to save Bagatelle from a Yankee mercenary, whom she had first encountered on a riverboat over twenty years ago.

If I must be frank, “LOUISIANA” is not exactly “GONE WITH THE WIND” or“NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. But the 1984 production does bear some resemblance to both the movie and the other miniseries. I noticed that the character of Virginia Tregan Damvillier de Vigors strongly reminded me of Margaret Mitchell’s famous leading lady from “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Scarlett O’Hara. Both characters are strong-willed, ruthless, charming, manipulative, passionate and Southern-born. Both had married at least two or three times. Well, Scarlett acquired three husbands by the end of Mitchell’s tale. In “LOUISIANA”, Virginia married twice and became engaged once to some mercenary who wanted Bagatelle after the war. Both women had fallen in love with a man who was forbidden to them. Unlike Scarlett, Virginia eventually ended up with the man she loved, despite losing three of her children. Apparently, the saga’s original author felt that Virginia had to pay a high price for manipulating her way into a marriage with Adrien Damvillier.

“LOUISIANA” also shared a few aspects with another famous Civil War-era saga – namely John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Both sagas were based upon a trilogy of novels that spanned the middle decades of the 19th century – covering the antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mind you,“LOUISIANA” lacked the epic-style storytelling of the television adaptation of Jakes’ trilogy. Not even Virginia’s journey to France and her experiences during the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848, along with another journey to France during the first year of the Civil War could really give, “LOUISIANA” the epic sprawl that made the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy so memorable. However, the miniseries, like “NORTH AND SOUTH”, did depicted the darker side of the Old South’s plantation system. It did so through the eyes of four characters – Clarence Dandridge; one Bagatell slave named Brent; another Bagatelle slave named Ivy, and Virginia’s French-born servant/companion, Mignette.

Like both “NORTH AND SOUTH” and “GONE WITH THE WIND”,“LOUISIANA” suffered from some historical inaccuracies. I found it interesting that Bagatelle did not suffer the consequences from the Panic and Depression of 1837, which lasted until the mid-1840s. Especially since it was a cotton plantation. The economic crisis had not only led to a major recession throughout the United States, it also dealt a severe blow to the country’s Cotton Belt, thanks to a decline in cotton prices. Unlike the 1980 miniseries, “BEULAH LAND”,“LOUISIANA” never dealt with this issue, considering that the story began in 1836. I also found the miniseries’ handling of Revolution of 1848 in France and the California Gold Rush rather questionable, as well. Gold was first discovered by James Marshall in California, in January 1848. But news of the discovery did not reach the East Coast until August-September 1848, via an article in the New York Herald; and France became the first country to fully experience the Revolution of 1848 on February 23, 1848. Yet, according to the screenplay for “LOUISIANA”, Charles de Vigors first learned about the California gold discovery in a newspaper article in mid-June 1848 . . . sometime before France experienced the first wave of the Revolutions of 1848.

If there is one aspect of “LOUISIANA” that reigned supreme over both “NORTH AND SOUTH” and “GONE WITH THE WIND” are the costumes designed by John Jay. The costumes lacked the theatrical styles of the John Jakes miniseries and the 1939 Oscar winner. But they did project a more realistic image of the clothes worn during the period between 1830s and 1860s. And fans of “NORTH AND SOUTH” would immediately recognize the plantation and house that served as Bagatelle in “LOUISIANA”. In real life, it is Greenwood Plantation, located in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Aside from serving as Bagatelle, it also stood in as Resolute, the home of the venal Justin LaMotte in the first two miniseries of the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy.

The story for “LOUISIANA” seemed pretty solid. It seemed like a Louisiana version of “GONE WITH THE WIND”, but with the epic sprawl of “NORTH AND SOUTH”. But only in length . . . not in style. Margot Kidder, Ian Charleson, Andréa Ferréol, Len Cariou, Lloyd Bochner, Victor Lanoux, and Hilly Hicks all gave pretty good performances. Kidder and Charleson, surprisingly managed to create a strong screen chemistry. The miniseries indulged in the romance of the Old South. But as I had earlier pointed out, the miniseries also exposed its darker aspects – especially slavery. When the story first began with Virginia’s arrival in Louisiana with her maid, Mignette; the entire production seemed like a reflection of the “moonlight and magnolias” myth of the Old South, until the story shifted to the cotton harvest fête held at Bagatelle. In this scene, slavery reared its ugly head when the plantation’s housekeeper becomes suddenly ill, while serving a guest. Slavery and racism continued to be explored not only when Virginia’s conservative beliefs over slavery clash with Clarence’s more liberal ideals; but also with scenes featuring encounters between Bagatelle slave Brent and a racist neighbor named Percy Templeton, Mignette’s Underground Railroad activities, and a doomed romance between one of Virginia’s sons and a slave named Ivy. Yet, despite Virginia’s conservative views regarding slavery, the miniseries allowed audiences to sympathize with her through her romantic travails, the tragic deaths of her children and her post-war efforts to save Bagatelle from a slimy con artist-turned-carpetbagger named Oswald.

If you are expecting another “GONE WITH THE WIND” or “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, you will be disappointed. But thanks to Maurice Denuzière’s novels and the screenplay written by Dominique Fabre, Charles E. Israel and Etienne Périer; “LOUISIANA” ended up as an entertaining saga about a woman’s connections with a Louisiana plantation during the early and mid 19th century. For anyone interested in watching “LOUISIANA”, you might find it extremely difficult in finding the entire miniseries (six hours) either on VHS or DVD. And it might be slightly difficult in finding an edited version as well. The last time I had seen “LOUISIANA”, it aired on CINEMAX in the mid-1990s and had been edited to at least three hours. If you find a copy of the entire miniseries or the edited version, you have my congratulations.

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“STARDUST” (2007) Review

“STARDUST” (2007) Review”

When I had first saw the poster for “STARDUST” three years ago, I could not drum any interest in seeing it.In fact, my interest remained dormant after viewing the trailer. Just today, someone had suggested that we see it, considering there was no other movie in the theaters we were interested in seeing. I said “no thanks”. It did not end there. This “someone” literally had to coerce me into seeing the film. And you know what? I am glad that he did. 

Based upon Neil Gaiman’s novella and directed by Matthew Vaughn, “STARDUST” told the story of a young 19th century Englishman named Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox), who became involved in a series of adventures in magical kingdom located beyond the wall of his hometown of . . . Wall. His adventures resulted from his love of a young neighbor named Victoria (Sienna Miller) and his desire to find and retrieve a fallen star named Yvaine (Claire Danes) in order to prove his worthiness as a future husband. Tristan had no idea that his mother (Kate Magowan) was not only a citizen of this magical kingdom, but also a royal princess who was enslaved by a witch named Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill). He did not realize that his two surviving uncles – Prince Septimus (Mark Strong) and Prince Primus (Jason Flemyng) – were in search of a ruby that would give either of them the throne to the kingdom. A ruby that had caused Yvaine to fall from the sky and ended up being worn by her. And Tristan was also unaware of a witch named Lamia who seek Yvaine. With the latter’s heart carved out, Lamia and her two sisters would be able to regain their youth and power.

I will go any further into the story, because it is simply too damn complicated. But it is not confusing. Trust me, it is not. But I do feel that in order to know the entire story, one would simply have to see the film. I have never read Gaiman’s novella, so I have no idea how faithful Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn’s script was to the story. But I do feel that Goldman and Vaughn’s adaptation resulted in an exciting, yet humorous tale filled with surprisingly complex characters and situations.

The acting, on the other hand, was first-class. It could have been easy for Charlie Cox and Claire Danes to fall into the usual trap of portraying the leads, Tristan and Yvaine, as a pair of simpering and and over emotional young lovers – a cliche usually found in many romantic fantasies over the years. Instead, Cox and Danes seemed to be having a good time in portraying not only the ideal personality traits of the two lovers, but their not-so-pleasant sides through their constant bickering and mistakes. Vaughn filled the cast with some of his regulars like the always competent and dependable Dexter Fletcher and Jason Flemyng, along with Sienna Miller, who did a surprisingly good job of portraying Tristan’s bitchy object of desire, Victoria. Mark Strong was excellent as the ruthless and sardonic Prince Septimus. Robert DeNiro did a surprising turn as Captain Shakespeare, a flaming drag queen who pretends to be a ruthless and very macho captain of a pirate ship in order to maintain his reputation. DeNiro was very funny. But by the movie’s last half hour, the joke surrounding his deception threatened to become slightly tiresome. But the movie’s true scene stealer turned out to be Michelle Pfieffer as the evil and treacherous Lamia, the oldest and most clever of the three sister witches. At times seductive, funny, malevolent and creepy, Pfieffer managed to combine all of these traits in her performance, allowing her to literally dominate the movie and provide one of the most creepiest screen villains to hit the movie screens in the past decade. Margaret Hamilton, look out!

As much as I had enjoyed “STARDUST”, I had a few problems with the movie. I have already pointed out how the joke surrounding Captain Shakespeare’s sexual orientation threatened to become overbearing. I also found the movie’s running time to be a bit too long. This problem could be traced to an ending so prolonged that it almost rivaled the notoriously long finale of“LORD OF THE RING: RETURN OF THE KING”. And the fact that the movie’s style seemed to be similar to the 1987 movie, “THE PRINCESS BRIDE”, did not help. Another problem I found with the movie was its “happily ever after” ending that left me feeling slightly disgusted with its sickeningly sweet tone. But what really irritated me about “STARDUST” was Jon Harris’s editing. It seemed so choppy that it almost gave the movie an uneven pacing.

But despite the movie’s disappointing finale and Harris’ editing, “STARDUST” proved to be a very entertaining movie. Using a first-class cast and an excellent script, director Matthew Vaughn managed to pay a proper homage to Neil Gaiman’s novella. He also proved at the time that his debut as a director (“LAYER CAKE”) was more than just a fluke.