Award season is kind of awkward this year. There are so many good movies - more so than usual; I am actually split about who should win, not just who should not win. With There Will Be Blood, the breath-taking masterpiece from P.T. Anderson, and the supremely excellent No Country for Old Men, it's hard to say who should win what, especially since they are contending for six of the same categories. Not only does the appearance of these two excellent movies make me care more, but the threat of there not being an Oscars ceremony due to the Writer's Strike makes it even more tense- of course, the threat of taking something away makes you want that thing more, but on top of that there are so many good movies you want to see honored/snubbed.
The other movie, besides those mentioned, that seems to occupy many nominations this year is Atonement. I had no primary interest in seeing this movie, at first writing it off as another lame English romance movie by the director of Pride & Prejudice (whoever that is), but after seeing that is won the Golden Globe for Best Picture and that it was nominated for 7 academy awards I decided that I should probably see it.
The movie starts off centered on Briony, the younger sister of Cecilia, Keira Knightley's character. Right off the bat, with Dario Marienelli's fantastic musical score blending together the echoed punch of typewriter's keys, we are given lush images of a upperclass home in England: the dark woods of the domestic stairway, the sterile white lace of Briony and her room, the bright sunshine and emerald greens of the grass and gardens out the window. The camera moves athletically through the house, following Briony's heels as she tries to find someone to share in her excitement of finishing her first play. The first few scenes are engaging and beautiful, almost boastfully so.
I say boastfully because the film technique and the construction is so terrifically well-crafted and nice to look at that as I am watching it, I begin to distance myself from the film. It's almost as if I am watching a virtuoso performance - noticing how well the light has been placed, how lovely the colors are arranged, how well the figures are composed within the frame - that I am not sucked into the world of the film as immediately. This distancing and isolation is greatened by the unconventional editing within the narrative. There are several repeating scenes, close-ups, rewinds, and other techniques which evoke a tip of the hat to avant-garde cinema that I can't help but notice it. I am reminded that someone - or many people, actually - has constructed what I am watching, I am reminded that I am watching something that has been created. This is the opposite effect of, say, There Will Be Blood or any other movie which you are completely drawn into to the point in which you forget you are watching a movie, you are just so focused on these characters and their world.
This distance did not last throughout the whole movie for me, mostly in the beginning. There were times when I was totally engaged and forgot I was watching a movie, but every now and then a dream sequence or an tricky shot would bring me back. I don't know if this is solely the result of taking film classes these past two semesters, but I highly doubt it. The effect of the distancing I felt from the movie at times was mixed. On one hand I could appreciate the beauty and construction of it from afar, as a painting or purely visual medium, but on the other hand, I couldn't become as attached to the characters. With this said, the ending did not affect me in ways that it has others - no teary-eyed sentiments (although Vanessa Redgrave's monologue with the intense close-up did give my heartstrings a pull or two).
The only criticism I would make of the film is that it did feel a bit overstated at some points. The music would crescendo and the camera would snake, someone's eyes would be in close up (often watery). This happened a lot, and sometimes I just wanted the camera to sit still and let the characters walk across the frame with only ambient sounds or conversation, and every now and then it did. Sometimes it felt like the movie was trying to say something grand with grand gestures, when quieter approaches could have been just as or even more effective. The film's "loudness," however, did not really take too much away from it, especially since I felt like this was a chance for director Joe Wright, only previously known for doing (the 943rd) Pride & Prejudice adaptation, to flex his filmmaking muscles a bit.
Overall, I thought the film was very good and certainly a pleasant surprise. Should it get Best Picture? No. But then again, I hope it does get something. Maybe Best Art Direction, since it was very, very beautiful. And Best Original Score. Hmm... Sure I like it now, but if it beats out There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men in anything, I may have less nice things to say about it. Ha. In any case, go see it. More on Oscar predictions later.