Atonement (2007)

Director Joe Wright is pretty decent at literary adaptations, which is a way of saying I liked his Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina more than Hanna. In between all those films was Atonement, which I think was a pretty big deal at the time; I remember reading the novel and really liking it, but it’s been too long for me to make any kinds of meaningful comparison between the two. That said, on its own merits this is a fine film and showcases that both Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are excellent actors with quite a bit of emotional depth (though we already knew that about the young Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character seeking the atonement of the title). It’s all very doomy, set against a backdrop of the build-up to and aftermath of World War II, but it’s a handsome and diverting production all the same. Also, Knightley wears a particularly excellent green dress for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

Atonement film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writers Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.

May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full. Find reviews for the following below the cut:

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan)
Aventurera (1950, Mexico)
Belle Époque (1992, Spain)
The Expendables (2010, USA)
Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany)
Hit So Hard (2011, USA)
John Wick (2014, USA)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA)
Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands)
Tomboy (2011, France)

Continue reading “May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Anna Karenina (2012)

I’ve only recently become familiar with British director Joe Wright from his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the basis of his short filmography, he seems to like adapting heritage literary sources. That earlier film showed a fair amount of directorial flair, but in this new film he rather surpasses himself, to the extent that the technical aspects of the filmmaking become even more central to the tale being told than any of the acting (though there are some standout performances, on which more below). I’m not entirely convinced this always adds to the story being told, but it certainly makes for some striking cinema.

The opening 15 minutes or so is probably where Wright’s technical virtuosity is most in evidence, as we see a succession of scenes introducing the central characters for the ensuing drama. These are chiefly Anna (Keira Knightley), her ministerial husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), her dandy aristocratic brother Prince Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), and Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a shabbily-dressed lank-haired friend of Stiva’s who is in love with Kitty. These opening scenes are framed — as are several throughout the film — by the front of a stage with its footlights, as seen in many of the posters. It’s a cute way of presenting the story as a self-consciously staged one, only heightened by the colour and detail of the costumes and the elaborate intricacy of the set design.

Scenes, too, blend into one another, as characters seamlessly move from one geographical and spatial setting to another without any ostensible cuts, another distancing technique which recalls similar sequences in classic post-war new wave filmmaking, but which most brings to my mind the playful experimentation of Raúl Ruiz, especially his adaptation of Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999). Yet where Ruiz’s touch was light and perfectly integrated into the sense of nostalgia and memory that Proust’s work dealt with, here the technique seems far more self-aggrandising, and serves to distance us further as viewers from the grand, melodramatic story being shown.

And it is melodramatic, with all kinds of ridiculous touches, showing excess in the costumes and in the sets (trains entirely encrusted with snow, as just one example). Where the film palpably scores is in some of the supporting acting. While I remain unconvinced by the lovers at the film’s centre, Jude Law imparts real pathos to the upright, slightly dull politician, while Alicia Vikander is charming as Kitty — even if the scene between her and Kostya where they reveal their feelings via coloured alphabet bricks is too cute by half.

Still, it hits all the rights kinds of notes for the sumptuously-staged period drama it is, so those who are partial to this sort of thing will find it passably enjoyable, no doubt.

Anna Karenina film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writer Tom Stoppard (based on the novel Анна Каренина by Leo Tolstoy Лев Толстой); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 3 February 2014.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

There have been a lot of adaptations and reimaginings of novels by Jane Austen (there was a particular glut of them in the 1990s), and for my sins I’ve seen a fair few, such that I’m never really sure what’s going on and who’s who whenever an Austen film starts. I feel like I should know the stories better, but they always seem to involve a bit of to-do around social status, some mentions of the gentleman’s annual income, several lengthy dance sequences, and many many glorious frocks. As staples of the ‘heritage film’ — a moribund genre if ever there was one, laid out by Merchant-Ivory and focused above all on bloodless period frippery — they should by all rights be terrible, but I must admit I like the odd period film with all their stuffed shirts and wilful heroines.

In terms of being a particular departure for the genre, I shan’t mount any great defence of this 2005 adaptation, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as the prideful and prejudicial protagonists. If you are convinced that the heritage film privileges a conservative, prettified and cleaned-up view of history-as-nostalgia more apt to be commodified as home design or fashion choices, then you won’t be changing your mind with this film. There are some gorgeous views of the English countryside, of the Bennets’ gently dilapidated home, and of the grand estates to which several of the Bennets aspire, and very little historical or political context. The choice to move the setting from the early-19th century of the novel to the late-18th century seems motivated more by a desire to incorporate different frocks and thus differentiate the enterprise from the more famous television adaption of ten years earlier (the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).

All those caveats aside, this is an excellent production of the Austen novel, well-mounted and acted, beautifully-filmed, and which is generous with the characters (as generous as it could be, given it’s not a six-hour TV mini-series). There is some particularly nice early flair with the camera, featuring long sinuous tracking shots, and a stand-out sequence during a dance which moves in one take through several rooms and catches little vignettes and dialogue from various of the characters.

Sadly, this inventiveness with the mise en scène largely cedes to more classical filmmaking as the drama progresses, but luckily the acting holds its own. I’ve not always been fond of angular, toothsome Keira Knightley in the past, but as the winsome (and, yes, wilful) Elizabeth Bennet she does rather well with what is very much the central role. Macfadyen gloms moodily around the edges, displaying the required want of sociability rather than mere haughty imperiousness — that quality is left to his best friend’s sister, played perfectly by Kelly Reilly. The rest of the Bennet family are by turns shrill (Brenda Blethyn’s mother), giggly (Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone as Kitty and Lydia) and moody (the stand-out Mary, played by Talulah Riley). Their boisterousness is rather distracting from the precarious background to the story’s predicament — that if the daughters are not married, the family will become destitute — something that only Donald Sutherland’s father and Rosamund Pike as eldest sister Jane seem to carry. As the man to whom the family fortune will fall, Tom Hollander is a comedic highlight as the desperately unctuous Mr Collins.

It may not be cinematic cutting edge, but it’s the kind of straightforward, nicely-made and well-acted confection that makes for comforting viewing. There’s at least something to that, so I’m happy to allow this as a worthwhile addition to an already oversubscribed genre.


CREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writer Deborah Moggach (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Roman Osin; Starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, Donald Sutherland, Kelly Reilly; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 21 May 2013.