Beneath the glossy sheen of Zac Efron there exists the makings of quite a fine actor glimpses of which were seen in both the blockbuster comedy 17 Again and the indie drama Me and Orson Welles. His transition out of the Disney-fied teen-dream world and into more adult-oriented projects is a gradual uneasy one as is evidenced by his latest film the metaphysical drama Charlie St. Cloud which finds him perched squarely in between the two camps. Efron it appears is in that awkward stage.
In Charlie St. Cloud Efron plays the title character a carefree college-bound sailing star whose bright future is torpedoed when an awful auto wreck takes the life of his beloved kid brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie at the wheel of the car at the time of the crash briefly dies himself only to be wrested from a flatline by a particularly stubborn and spiritual EMT (Ray Liotta).
Years later Charlie’s body has made a full recovery but his mind remains plagued by some nasty after-effects of the tragedy. He’s given up sailing ditched his college plans gotten a job at a cemetery and taken up the habit of holding regular conversations with dead people — specifically his brother Sam with whom he meets daily in a forest clearing to play catch. Usually such mental deterioration coincides fairly closely with physical deterioration which is why you don’t encounter a lot of well-groomed paranoid schizophrenics on skid row. But Charlie has kept up with his workout and grooming regimens earning a reputation among the residents of his sleepy Pacific Northwest town as a sort of beautiful nutcase.
Unable to escape his all-consuming grief Charlie seems doomed to retreat further into isolation and despair until salvation arrives wrapped in a cardigan: Tess (Amanda Crew) a feisty pro sailor and no stranger to tragedy herself can see beyond Charlie’s unhinged persona to the sensitive troubled and irresistibly hot man that lies beneath. As their relationship deepens Charlie is increasingly torn between his imaginary friends and his real-life love.
It’s a noble aim giving tweens questions deeper than just “Edward or Jacob?” to contemplate and Charlie St. Cloud’s principal message “life is for living ” is a worthwhile one. But director Burr Steers having learned from the success of 17 Again clearly knows where his bread is buttered and so he takes care to sate the demands of Efron’s screeching fanbase by stocking the film with ample glowing shots of his star lovingly lit and clad invariably in a light blue solid color shirt and emoting against a picturesque coastal landscape. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating check out this studio-supplied promo clip featuring an interview with a shirtless Efron.) The awkward mix of existential drama and Abercrombie & Fitch commercial combined with a healthy dose of loopy Sixth Sense-esque supernatural shenanigans tossed in toward the end makes for an experience only the most fawning of Efron’s fans could enjoy.
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.