Melodrama in Distress

Photo: Greg Williams/Courtesy of Focus Features

The artists who adapted Ian McEwan’s devastating novel Atonement to the screen have done, by all objective measures, a sterling job of stuffing everything into their movie’s two-hour frame: the major themes; the radical shifts in perspective; and the final, audacious act of narrative rug-pulling that laid me and a lot of other readers out flat, brooding both on the fates of the characters and the fatal ways in which fictions can get tangled up with lies. The film is absorbing and evocative—more fully worked out than many other prestige literary adaptations, like Cold Mountain. It leaves you very sad for James McAvoy and Keira Knightley as the increasingly haggard lovers, and for the fanciful girl (Saoirse Ronan in 1935, Romola Garai on the other side of puberty) who alters their destiny. But it doesn’t achieve what McEwan does—what all adaptations of his books need to do to make the leap to another medium. It doesn’t fuck with your head.

The movie, like the novel, begins in 1935 on an English country estate as rich young Briony Tallis types the end of her first major work, a melodrama about a reckless heroine, an evil count, a near-fatal illness, and a handsome prince. But McEwan pulls you into her adolescent fantasy world, while the director, Joe Wright, scants it. He puts more weight on the typewriter keys that hit the paper like anvils—an idea picked up by the film’s composer, Dario Marianelli, who weaves those clacks into his otherwise romantic score. It’s a clever way of goosing you out of the story, but those keys don’t strike very deeply. Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton are keen social satirists who tend to keep their characters at a wry distance, so the shifts in perspective play like artsy syntactical hiccups. From the window of the country estate, Briony spies her older sister, Cecilia (Knightley), disrobing in front of a fountain before Robbie (McAvoy), the son of the family’s housekeeper. A short time later, the scene is replayed from Cecilia’s and Robbie’s point of view—and we’re meant to marvel at the gap between what Briony thinks she saw (and which festers in her adolescent brain) and what actually happened. But in spite of Ronan’s breathless affect, Briony’s perspective never takes hold; her inner world has no weight. And since she’s the one whose actions are the heart of the film (and the source of the title), Atonement never gets much beyond the melodramatic plight of its unjustly besieged lovers.

In his last film, Pride and Prejudice (also with Knightley), Wright aimed to unearth the vein of social realism in Jane Austen—to play down the Masterpiece Theatre element and play up the grime and the hurly-burly. He must have been champing at the bit for the more epic scale of Atonement. So in the center section of the film, the disgraced, war-weary Robbie wanders around the beach at Dunkirk in the scary hours before the British begin their legendary evacuation. In one long shot, the camera holds on Robbie as he trudges past soldiers who shoot their horses (so the Nazis won’t get them), sundry bonfires, a man working out on a pommel horse, and a corpse. Then the camera leaves him and picks its way among other bedraggled soldiers, lingers for a bit with a choir in a gazebo, finds Robbie again atop a hill, and pulls back to show the whole beach littered with men and debris and even a distant Ferris wheel. It probably took days to rehearse and was celebrated with crates of beer and lots of backslapping, but it has nothing to do with what the movie’s about. It stops a show that needed to keep going.

Atonement will certainly make McAvoy, who was inevitably overshadowed by Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, a star in his own right. He’s already an Internet heartthrob, but he’s about to make millions of teenage girls and teenage-girls-at-heart bawl almost as hard as they did when a certain ocean liner went down. What a part: working-class but educated and ambitious, stalwart but unjustly accused. He types the C-word—not as an insult but in the throes of longing—and still seems to radiate purity. As he walks from his mother’s house to the family manse, the natural world seems parched and malignant, a place of serpents ready to swallow up this slender, beautiful, working-class boy.

The grim coda of Atonement doesn’t shatter you, though, and force you to think back over everything you’ve seen. It lacks McEwan’s killer instinct. The author has evolved since the days when Brits dubbed him Ian Macabre, but underneath the magisterial prose and Updike-like mastery of detail is the same misanthropic cunning. His last two books, Saturday and On Chesil Beach, are like Chekhov rewritten by a cool neuroscientist: He wants to diagram—anatomize—the ways in which people become lost in their labyrinthine perspectives, and to give their limitations stinging consequences. Atonement works reasonably well as a tragic romance, but that sting is dulled. As a book, it was a blow to the head; as a movie, it’s an adaptation of a book.

In the credit sequence of the teen-pregnancy comedy Juno, the title heroine (Ellen Page) strides with magnetic confidence through the streets of suburbia, and her trek metamorphoses into a wiggly, elating cartoon, with a girl-group pop song to reinforce the notion that headstrong Juno is her own universe. So far, so infectious, but in the next scene she goes to buy a pregnancy test from a snarky pharmacist and bizarrely blurts out everything she’s doing; she comes out of the bathroom and rants about the little plus sign. I know Juno is not supposed to care what other people think of her. I know she’s a poster girl (or will be) for the Facebook Generation—the one with zero sphere of privacy. But I could never go with her manic exhibitionism in the drugstore. She’s a screwball heroine, but it’s the writer, Diablo Cody, and the director, Jason Reitman, who have screws loose.

Or maybe they’re just desperate to make their film a chick Rushmore or Garden State—a movie that confers hipness on teens, that makes kids want to use the same slang and snap up the soundtrack and buy the vintage Japanese comics and rent the hack-’em-up DVDs it references. The filmmakers even lucked into the male lead (Michael Cera) of Superbad, only here he’s a whiny cipher. The relentlessly jokey banter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is taken to a screechy new level. Every character’s wisecracks come from the same place, like in bad Neil Simon. In one memorably grisly scene, the pierced receptionist at an abortion clinic robotically goes through her supposedly empathetic spiel and then holds forth on the aroma of her boyfriend’s penis. It’s meant to be shocking, and it is—but only because you don’t think the filmmakers will stoop that low. No, they stoop lower: The jokes disappear for the end of each segment, when you’re supposed to shed a little tear.

Young Reitman was mysteriously acclaimed for his ugly, inept film of the libertarian hipster comedy Thank You for Not Smoking, but that movie didn’t break out the way Juno will. It’s the Knocked Up—the family-values picture with four-letter words—that the tweeners will want to see. Its biggest hook is Page, a young Canadian actress who played Red Riding Hood as an avenging vigilante torturer in the horror-psychodrama Hard Candy. In that one, you never knew when her character was playacting and when she was supposed to be genuinely distraught—she was a feminist construct. But Page blurred the line in a way that kept you watching her. She has a talent for making her motormouthed lines sound like they’re really coming from her head. Here, her mixture of flamboyant self-possession and vulnerability could turn her into a new role model. Prepare yourself for the Juno generation.

The best antidote to Juno is Billy the Kid, a heartbreaking vérité documentary by Jennifer Venditti about a misfit Maine teenager—a film that makes you think about (and question) what fitting in really entails. Billy tries. He doesn’t naturally make eye contact (he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome after the movie was finished), but he talks—and talks—even when he doesn’t know how to gauge the responses of the people he’s talking to. He’s wildly enthusiastic about horror movies and books about serial killers, which one hopes are safe outlets for his aggression rather than designs for living. (He’s also pretty good at karate and electric guitar.) He solemnly informs the director that he doesn’t kill the women in video games and dreams about one day saving a damsel in distress.

Billy finds one in the movie named Heather, a waitress who’s partially blind and slightly overweight. “Just like her, I myself have a little condition,” he says to the camera. The girl is monosyllabic, so he chatters away about An American Werewolf in London and anything else that comes into his mind (“I hate buses, their shock absorbers aren’t very comfortable”) and falls head over heels, and we know—we know—that he’s setting himself up for something terrible. Watching him try to orient himself in a world that makes no sense makes you wonder how any of us ever did.

Liberal Hollywood is not so liberal when it comes to teen abortions, usually presenting pregnant characters who contemplate, then reject the idea (think Knocked Up). There are a few notable exceptions, such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character gets driven by her older brother to the clinic. In The Cider House Rules, Erykah Badu’s character gets an abortion after her father sexually abuses her. And the movie abortion that terrified a generation of girls belongs to 1987’s Dirty Dancing, in which Baby’s father fixes Penny’s botched abortion, done with “a dirty knife, a folding table, and no ether.”

Directed by Joe Wright. Focus Features. R.

Directed by Jason Reitman. Fox Searchlight. PG-13.

Billy the Kid
Directed by Jennifer Venditti. Elephant Eye Films. Not rated.


Melodrama in Distress