Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.
As dean of a small college Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) has made a nice life for himself--until a false accusation of racism ruins his career and he loses his wife to a brain aneurysm. Suddenly Coleman has nothing--until he embarks on an intensely sexual relationship with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) a local woman with an abusive ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) who won't leave her alone. The intensity of Coleman's love for Faunia leads him to reveal his long-held secret: He has been passing himself off as Jewish and white for most of his adult life but in reality he is a light-skinned African-American. From there a series of flashbacks to the 1940s introduce us to a younger love-struck Coleman (Wentworth Miller) and reveal the events that led him to his fateful decision. Somehow Coleman's deep dark secret isn't as shocking as it's probably meant to be but the relationship between Faunia and Coleman is--especially when it slips into the danger zone with Lester breathing down their necks.
Wentworth Miller who makes his film debut as the younger Coleman does an amazing job with his role establishing Coleman's quiet yet fierce determination to live a life free of intolerance. And as ever Hopkins is the consummate professional with flashes of intense passion and brilliance in his steely eyes. One does have to get over the fact that a Welsh actor has been cast as an elderly light-skinned African-American but if Hopkins can give nuance to a declaration of how Viagra has changed his character's life (ick) he can pull off the race thing easily enough. Kidman as the dour Faunia also has some stunning moments easily sinking to the depressive depths required of her character--not surprising considering she won the Oscar doing the same thing in The Hours. What really makes you clench your teeth though is when the two of them get together on screen--in the biblical sense. These Oscar winners are so sorely miscast as tortured lovebirds that their sexual moments make you squirm in your seat. It's not the age difference; there's simply no spark between them.
"We leave a stain a trail and imprint " Philip Roth writes in his novel the third in a trilogy on postwar America. "It's the only way to be here." The author goes on to explore myriad themes around this main premise including how we leave our marks how our decisions have consequences and how people can find one another under the direst circumstances. Unfortunately these big ideas get lost in translation on the big screen and the film suffers from adaptation blues. Director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer gives Roth's ideas voice only through Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) the reclusive author Coleman asks to write his life story and even that artistic character talks more about how sex is clouding Coleman's judgment than about his own life or ideology. Ultimately Meyer focuses his script too heavily on the guarded Coleman leaving the other characters too little developed. Why has Nathan secluded himself away from the world? What haunts him? Sinise does what he can with the character but there's too little background. The same goes for Faunia. Although she describes in one monologue after another the horrors of her life--she was abused as a girl and lost her two children in a terrible fire--Faunia's hardships seem distant and it's hard to connect with her character. Only the wounded Lester a Vietnam veteran seems made of real emotions and desires--he's filled with hatred and passion--and if he makes only a brief appearance in the film he certainly leaves a mark.