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Oscar Watch: "Atonement"

By admin Published: February 5, 2008


I used my theoretical day off to squeeze in the one best-picture nominee I had not seen. Thoughts after the jump (including some spoilers if you have not seen it).

Overview: Seven Oscar nominations. Best picture, art direction, cinematography, costume design, adapted screenplay, original music score and best supporting actress (Saoirse Ronan). ...

"Atonement" reeks of what Oscar so often likes -- the grand scale, the literate dialogue (and literary background), the British accents. It is all supposed to feel meaningful and serious, especially as a contemplation of the power of words. If at times it seems more than a little dull, then we are supposed to believe that's our fault for being such oafs.

But it is too calculating a piece for my taste, a movie that seeks redemption through its final scenes, a trick ending.

I don't have a problem with trick endings (I love "The Usual Suspects." for one, and liked the trick in "The Sixth Sense."). But the trick in "Atonement" came painfully late in the process. If the bulk of the movie is indeed Briony's last novel, then it is not a good one, with its disjointed narration and wooden dialogue. (The concocted post-Dunkirk scene with Briony, Cecelia and Robbie felt unwieldy and false even before the novel's revelation.) Even if the revelation is supposed to explain away the flaws preceding it, the flaws are still tough to sit through.

The movie is, in short, a hash. Scenes leading up to Robbie's arrest are from one film. The overlong wartime sequences belong in a different one (and the change from the arrest to wartime is abrupt.) Then, of course, there is the tragic real-life tale buried by the novel's attempt at happiness.

But instead of continuing to complain, let me turn to the Oscar-worthiness of the piece. With three grand contenders for best picture ("Juno," "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood"), "Atonement" is an also-ran. As I said, it has a lot of things that Oscar voters like. But where I could stand it if any of the big three won, a win by "Atonement" or "Michael Clayton" would be a big Oscar misstep.

Supporting actress: Ronan as the young Briony was impressive. But not as much as Amy Ryan and Cate Blanchett. (And, when we're considering young up and comers, I would give Dakota Blue Richards of "The Golden Compass" a nod over Ronan. Only Richards was in an even worse movie, and would have had to contend in the best-actress category to boot. But, as usual, I digress.)

Adapted screeplay: I have been bad about reading source material, not that that matters a lot. After all, I have skimmed "Oil," the Upton Sinclair novel that inspired "There Will Be Blood," and the connection between book and film is minimal. (And the movie is better than the book.) So I will just say that "Blood" and "No Country" -- and "Away From Her," for that matter -- are better movies than "Atonement."

Art direction: To the extent that I understand such things, I'd go first to "There Will Be Blood" or "Sweeney Todd." Cinematography: I prefer "There Will Be Blood," "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Costume design: If you want to give "Atonement" something, I suppose this is as good a place as any. Music score, ditto.

In other words, I'm not going to be worrying much about those categories on Oscar night.

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