January 2, 2008

One of my New Year’s traditions is to catch a film every January 1st. Last night, Shane and I saw Atonement, a choice made largely due to the presence of James McAvoy, star of The Last King of Scotland. I was so impressed with his performance in that film that I wanted to see what he’d do in this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel.

I’m not a McEwan fan, though I’ve enjoyed him occasionally. Some years ago, after seeing the film version of The Comfort of Strangers, I dubbed him a writer of horror stories for yuppies. Since then I’ve had a fairly ambivalent (meaning ‘having conflicting views’ rather than ‘neither here nor there’) response to everything of his I’ve read. I admire some of his writing a lot and much not at all. Apart from the opening story in the collection ‘First Love, Last Rites,’ I’ve never enjoyed a work of his in its entirety.

To me, his writing feels academic, as though he’s writing a thesis—cold, calculating and occasionally brilliant, but seldom moving. It’s more than just that emotionally repressed Anglo nature. At some point, I always feel that characters and events are being manipulated to support a premise or frame an idea, and I stop believing in the story. Martin Amis has the same effect on me.

While I haven’t read the book, it seemed odd that the film’s beginning and ending are told from the POV of the younger sister, Briony, while the middle is about Briony’s older sister Cecilia and Cecilia’s lover, Robbie. The story of the couple—separated when Robbie is accused by Briony of a crime he didn’t commit—is powerful, but has an intrusive post-modern twist (Vanessa Redgrave, as the older Briony, returns half a century later to “explain” what happened) that’s both distancing and unconvincing.

I might also say that stories about heterosexual coupling often don’t appeal to me unless they’re exceptional (think Casablanca, Chinatown, Moulin Rouge, Old Yeller—ok, the latter isn’t really about coupling), while I find myself far more tolerant of gay stories. For one thing, I’m inclined to share their perspective on life and, for another, there are fewer gay stories, so I’m less easily bored by them.

Having said that, however, I found the relationship between Cecilia and Robbie quite engrossing, but I suspect I was responding to what most people who claim to love this film are responding to: Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, two of the world’s most beautiful people, in close-up. It’s intoxicating.

The added value of having McAvoy is in seeing what appears to be the emergence of a colossal talent. There are few movie stars today who have real acting chops: Sean Penn, Heath Ledger, Leonardo DiCaprio, Philip Seymour Hoffman—and only a few from the past: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave. OK, I’m picky… But so few stars have what it takes to deliver a subtle, stunning performance film after film. Let’s add McAvoy to the list.

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