Sunday, December 30, 2007

Burden Of Guilt

Just as it is a story about how things aren't always what they seem to be, Atonement is also a film that isn't always what it seems to be. This frantic unpredictability is its most winning element and offers surprising and unpredictable turns. And because of its unpredictability, it's also best to know as little about the film as possible before stepping into the cinema.

I must admit, I approached the film with some degree of trepidation, and in its initial minutes, thought it was going to be yet another stilted drama about the English upper class. I haven't read the Ian McEwan novel from which the film is adapted. Indeed the initial pace and acting do seem to point in that direction, complete with lots of soft focus shots. Then something happens. Gone is the soft focus as the visuals become darker and harsher. Things take on an almost surreal tone at times, like the one long, single take at the seaside in the evening, a beautiful, stunning scene that's made solely for the big screen. And then, just as you think you know where it's all going, the ending packs such an emotional wallop that it'll literally leave you reeling. The were quite a few left sobbing in the cinema where I saw the film.

I never saw, and never bothered to see, Pride And Prejudice, director Joe Wright's previous film. You see, I'd decided never to see another period drama adapted from a Jane Austen novel after I'd seen Ang Lee's brilliant take on Sense And Sensibility. But the casting here in Atonement is note-perfect. With this, it could easily have turned into a character study of the lead character. Indeed, McEwan's story explores just how far guilt can carry through in one's lifetime, how deep the ramifications of one's actions or mistakes. The lead character, 13-year-old Briony Talllis, does something that forever wrecks the lives of others, especially that of her sister Cecilia and Robbie, a young man from the family that works for the Tallis household.

But far from just a character study, the film explores not just the consequences, but also the possibilities and the could-have-beens. The film flits between what is merely beheld by the eyes and what really transpired, the different perspectives of the truth, coloured by one's own personal feelings. It does so with such frequency and immediacy, jumping back and forth in the timelines, jumbling up truths and half-truths, the real and the surreal, fact and fiction, with or without embellishments; that in the end, when the real truth comes along, it wrenches the heart in its vise-like grip and wrings every emotion out of it. Powerful.

Definitely one of the best and most beautiful films this year.

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