Threads of an Atonement

I first encountered Ian McEwan’s Atonement from the film, directed by Joe Wright with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. I remember the film having that dreamy quality which is so often attempted in excess by amateurs. That the film managed to play this style well marks its genius, an early verdict that is justified more and more as the story unfolded. One scene, in particular, stuck with me that I looked forward to reading the book just to see how that visual transition translated into words.

First things first. I would not want to spoil anyone who has not yet read or watched Atonement the pleasure of its surprise. So, for the sake of this review, I think it will be safe to refer to that scene as “Briony’s reveal”. And also, I am getting ahead of myself by starting with a scene that is obviously a twist in the plot and so occurs in its later parts. And so we backtrack.

Our story revolves around Briony Tallis, budding writer and little sister to Cecilia Tallis who is, in turn, a childhood friend of Robbie Turner. One summer day, Briony becomes an accidental witness to a rising romantic tension between Cecilia and Robbie, a scene which she (mis)interprets through the eyes of a child. Shortly afterwards, things spin out of anyone’s control and Briony finds herself responsible for a crime the consequences of which play out for years.

The artistic work that is Atonement is many things and almost everything that I find it to be strikes a chord with me. As a novel it is self-referential, using Briony’s artistic endeavors to reflect on the relationship of an author with her work; it even features a kind of foreshadowing, if you can call it that, with Briony’s The Trials of Arabella. It is a love story, not one where knights save damsels but one where a happy ending is as much a possibility as damnation. It is a war story, portraying war in all the exhaustion and futility it delivers. It is also, to paraphrase from someone else, a classic English novel with the “c” word in it.

…he dropped forward and typed before he could stop himself, “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long.”

It is at this point in the novel that the plot is stirred, the storm confirmed. You are not reading Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to say, where ladies and gentlemen spend almost a whole book in an emotional deadlock. In this story, women smoke, men are untrustworthy, and lives are ruined.

This is how Atonement sets-up its exploration of the burdens and complexities of growing up. Through the consequences of Briony’s misinterpretations and misplaced intentions, the novel waxes poetic on lost time and on a love that could have been. What keeps Atonement‘s take on this cliched plot element fresh is in how it gives context to the characters’ hopes and longings. For our lovers, there is the shadow of WWII hanging over them, around which they build their dreams and plans of being together. For Briony, that dread feeling of guilt never leaves and strengthens over time, which leads to her reveal, her act of atonement.

The years where Briony ages is obscured from the reader but her transformation, her growing up, is fleshed out well for the readers to follow. Taken plainly, the bulk of this work is not in how Briony atones for her faults but in how she grows the backbone to take responsibility of her mistakes.

“Growing up,” he echoed. When he raised his voice she jumped. “Goddamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?”

As someone who has, on multiple occasions, tried to spin up a story, I cannot help but admire Ian McEwan’s mastery of words (and, consequently, Joe Wright et. al.’s visual language). I am delighted to report that this is one of the books whose opening I’ve found to take me in at once, a sequence which was repeated well in the opening montage of the film.

McEwan also has that gift of voicing his character’s inner thoughts so well. It is what fleshes them out, what makes them real and tangible. His descriptions of Briony’s initial attempts at writing, her reactions upon her initial encounter with the aforementioned “c” word, places her so well as a kid. Later on, McEwan treats us with Robbie’s exhausted thoughts while walking a war-torn France. And then of course, there is Briony’s own experience in the war, a part of her growing up as much as her crime is.

All those praises said, I still think that Briony’s reveal is better handled as a visual experience. I may be biased, having seen the film first, but I can’t help but think that the way Briony’s reveal is done in the book would require a bit of experience with authors and the way they sign introductions, the extra leaves of their publications. It is not something which even most well-read people would’ve understood at once; I admit that, when I reached that point, it still took me a few moments to realize how the reveal was handled, and I have seen the film at that. Had I not seen the film, I think it will take me the first few pages of the succeeding part to realize what just happened. Not that I have a better suggestion in how this bit could be handled in the book.

Take the book, take the film, it does not matter. I think both works are sufficient to convince anyone that an atonement is an act that requires as much gravity as any act concerned with a heartfelt emotion.

Did she really think that she could hide … and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? … Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella … It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.

On Mirrors and Second Chances

Our story starts with an accident involving a seventeen-year-old girl, two deaths, and a second Earth. That’s right. A second Earth.

Lifelong astronomy-enthusiast Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) learns that she has been accepted into MIT the same night news about a second Earth hits the radio. Intoxicated from celebrating her acceptance into MIT, she drives home and literally crashes into the life (and car) of  John Burroughs (William Mapother), killing his wife, pregnant with their daughter, and his five-year old son on top of sending John into a coma.

She serves four years of prison time and, when she gets out, starts on a journey looking for the grace to forgive herself. She tries to apologize to a devastated John (who just woke from coma at around the same time Rhoda got off prison) but her nerve ultimately fails her and she ends up cleaning John’s house for free, all the while just waiting for the moment of her apology.

The story of how Rhoda struggles to find forgiveness is by no means unique but Another Earth still manages to stand-out with its beautiful visuals, evocative storytelling, and clever use of leitmotif. This is one of those films where you would really have to watch with the sounds on and please, whatever you do, do not try to enjoy this one with only subs—it is curious how Another Earth manages to evoke so much with so little words spoken. Indeed, I guess, pictures (and good ambient music) can paint a thousand words.

While certain elements of Another Earth‘s story definitely feels sci-fi, I am pleased to report that the whole story is something even non-sci-fi fans can find enjoyable. This is not the Star Wars/Star Trek kind of sci-fi. Think of the emotions the stories in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles evoke and understand that Another Earth will make you feel the same way. At its core, this film is very human.

In fact, the film turns a huge blind eye to science in portraying Earth Two. They dwelt more on what is beautiful and romantic about a second Earth rather than on what is practical and, admittedly, inconvenient. For a person like me, this lack of rigor would’ve been a very big issue. However, Another Earth‘s other merits managed to extract a larger amount of tolerance on my part. Another Earth is the kind of story that asks for a huge amount of creative license from its science-oriented viewers and I advice you to grant it. You will be pleasantly surprised.

I find it funny that a slew of other things popped into my mind while watching Another Earth. On the topic of Bradbury, that scene where Rhoda’s neighborhood reacts to the news that the second Earth is not just a second Earth but even possibly a mirror Earth reminded me strongly of the third expedition in TMC, a.k.a., Mars is Heaven. The scene where John asks Rhoda what she would do were she to meet herself inadvertently reminded me of the Choices xkcd series. Maybe, it’s as I said that the story takes on a certain formula, one no stranger to current viewers.

Also of note is the fact that Another Earth came into my attention because of Mapother’s involvement in another work I’m such a huge fan of: Lost. In Lost Mapother plays the role of a rather creepy and irritating antagonist named Ethan, one of “The Others”. However, while watching Another Earth, his performance strongly reminded me of another character in Lost—a protagonist this time—by the name of John Locke. It’s a compliment when an actor’s performance for a new role erases the ire a typecast from a previous role may have formed.

To sum up, Another Earth is a magical film about forgiveness disguised as a sci-fi film. Try counting how many characters actually figure in this film, how many minutes of dialogue it features, and marvel how little it is compared to larger-scale productions. But even at that, it manages to stand out and portray more than in two hours you may spend in other productions. Alas, beautiful things come in rarely.


Another Earth is a film by Mark Cahill starring Brit Marling and William Mapother. It premiered in the 27th Sundance film festival.

A Middle Installment for Middle Earth

I am far from being a Tolkien fan. I remember finding in my high school’s library an old and battered paperback of Fellowship of the Ring during my first year and trying to read it. A chunk of its cover was gone, torn maybe, patched with white heavy paper (cartolina) and it had that musty smell books get inside a library, in the company of fellow volumes, untouched for years. I got through around three-fourths of the book before all the songs with unearthly names tired me.

Like most of my generation, my main acquaintance with Tolkien has been through the eyes of Peter Jackson. While I’m aware that Tolkien purists would scowl at the liberties Jackson took with the material (like, hey Aragorn and Arwen’s love story was never really elaborated in the books), I do consider his work exemplary pieces of cinematic storytelling.

However, I also take the opinion that splitting The Hobbit into three movies is a liberty quite large to take. While I haven’t read the book, I’m pretty certain that the first installment of Jackson’s Hobbit was padded with all those chase scenes and sword fights. Glad as I am to indulge in the scenery and wonders of Middle Earth once more, the most significant scene I can find in the first installment was those which involved Gollum, frail for all he is, a victim of his own greed as much as of circumstance.

Come the middle installment of this ongoing trilogy, I think I’m starting to discern a similarity between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Where Fellowship ends soon after a rather tiring battle sequence with a note of promise of hope-after-hardships for the main cast, so does the first Hobbit installment. Where Two Towers ends after a battle victory which is really just a prelude for a larger-scale war awaiting in the next installment, the second Hobbit ends after the main characters earn a temporary reprieve against the dragon Smaug, and even provides a set-up for a larger battle in the third installment.

Make no mistake, I still find Jackson’s take on The Hobbit, liberties and all, an enjoying experience. Though purists may argue that Tolkien will not be pleased with liberties taken with his work, I think we can at least agree that Jackson did his homework before taking the liberties. His additions and diversions do not break the spell of Tolkien’s Middle Earth but they do weaken the power of the story.

Blame it on the decision to make a trilogy out of a single book but I find that the story lines we follow in Desolation of Smaug not cohesive enough to make for a compelling tale. Early on in the movie, Gandalf separates himself from the main party to investigate the Necromancer’s presence further. A little before the end, just after we’ve reached the climax of Gandalf’s and the dwarves’ story lines, we see Legolas run after some orcs while Tauriel stays behind to take care of an ailing Kili.

Contrast to the story lines we had to follow in Lord of the Rings—which all revolved around the problem of destroying the One Ring and defeating Sauron once and for all—the dilemmas of each story line in Desolation do not move around a central theme. Each party to his own, at least until the last moment when Smaug decides to lay waste on Laketown. By the time this happens, I still had my sympathies divided over the imprisoned Gandalf, the dwarves trying to outwit Smaug, Kili’s near-death brush and his dreamy admission of feelings for Tauriel, and Legolas’ pursuit. And even at that, Smaug only ties up two of the multiple story lines.

The bottom line is that after two hours, the story was unable to make me care for the characters enough. I will surely watch the final installment because I want to see more, not because I want to know what happens with Bilbo and company.

If it’s any saving grace, what Desolation lacks in its plot, it makes up for execution and technical merit. Desolation is as much eye-candy as eye-candy can go. While watching, I found myself smiling at the wrong scenes because I was thinking of the computational effort that went into the construction of the scene rather than on what is actually happening. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen dragons given facial expressions before Desolation‘s Smaug. And it is every-facial-muscle believable at that. The scene where molten gold pours on Smaug is also well-done. The fluidity of molten gold is something no mere movie maker will attempt. Jackson certainly knows how to play his strong cards.

As I noted earlier, Jackson seems to be replicating a certain pattern from LotR into Hobbit. And please, please, I hope that what There and Back Again takes from Return of the King is in how it herds its story into a rousing conclusion, one that viewers can actually care about. After all, it finally concludes what is meant to be a single installment tale.

Here’s to hoping that Jackson has more tricks to play hidden in his sleeve.

Unsuited

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

I must admit, despite the smug with which Tony Stark has always made the audience feel sure of him, this famous exchange from The Avengers has got me thinking. Of the team, he is the only one whose “ability” relies on something beyond him. Sure all of them, save Thor, can thank comic book science for their abilities but at least the others always have that ability with them, unlike a full-body smartphone.

(More case in point, the race track encounter in Iron Man 2 where Stark was just useless until he got his armor from Pepper and Happy. “Just give me the case!” cried Stark. Pardon the pun.)

So, it was with curiosity that I looked forward to Iron Man 3. The trailers showed a Tony Stark who has to react to another surprise attack, this time bigger in scale than Whiplash in Monaco, while not in his armor. Really, what could a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist do against surprise incoming missiles? It seemed to me that the people behind IM3 knew how to address Captain America’s jibe against Tony Stark.

I’ll save you my arguments for the next paragraphs but the film didn’t fully live up to the expectations the trailers set. I did not find it as bad as how others would make you believe—overall, it went as Marvel superhero movies are supposed to—but still, I found it lacking. And in those times where it could have made a point, it throws you a sucker punch, pun intended (again!).

Another thing the trailers made sure you didn’t miss is the fact that Tony Stark is troubled. A trailer starts with his voice over of an apology. Tony Stark does not apologize; he’s always right. And when he’s wrong, he’s always got an alibi to make a case that, at least, he’s partially right. Tony Stark doing an apology is like Tim Cook apologizing for Maps.

And Tony Stark is having nightmares. He can’t sleep well at night.

I found it interesting that they are integrating a plot point from The Avengers to IM3. Who would’ve thought that Stark’s daredevil stunt for a finale would haunt him way afterward. Interesting as it is, I found the execution poor and lacking, as if all this I’m-troubled-from-New-York drama was a last-minute addition to give IM3 more continuity from Avengers. Stark’s panic attacks just go at random points in the narrative, bearing no total weight on the film’s plot. Shame, as it could’ve integrated well with the film’s you-create-your-own-demons opening.

I think the film is trying to build-up Stark’s human element more than the previous three films which featured Iron Man. I think this is crucial in answering Captain America’s jibe. I can get all philosophical about it but take away the armor, the intellect, the money, and the ladies and Stark is just a man [1 ]. And their main point of attack is in pitting Stark against super-powered humans.

And I’m quite pleased at how they did it. Though I said earlier that IM3 plays as any Marvel superhero film is expected to play, there are huge chunks of the film where it doesn’t feel like a superhero movie at all and I found that good. Tony Stark fights—and wins the fight—without his armor. And he’s fighting Extremis-enhanced enemies at that. Totally badass. Finally, here’s what Stark is worth as an Avenger without his armor.

The set-up for the final fight sequence is excellent: Extremis-enhanced Killian versus Stark with his legion of Iron Man suits. We see Stark, jumping from suit to suit, trying to get the best of Killian as Killian trashes each [2 ]. Stark ultimately resorts to a surprise move involving the prodigal Mark 42 and yet that is not enough. If you haven’t seen the movie but have read to this point, pardon the spoilers (you should’ve expected them), but you should see what a tight plot corner Stark has been written into here. Iron Man suits are no use. Smart moves are no use. Hell-bent super-powered foe wanting to kill Stark.

But here comes the sucker punch (I’ll warn you: more spoilers ahead!). You know how Stark manages to live through that tight spot for Avengers 2? Help comes from his Extermis-enhanced lady love, Pepper Potts. And for a scene, Potts is the more powerful character; when an Iron Man in autopilot goes after her (having identified her abnormal heat signature for a possible enemy), she punches a hole through the armor’s chest, effortlessly sending it to kingdom come. There you have it. Pepper’s fist > Thor’s Mjolnir.

You can go all feminist about it, say how, at last, Potts is not just a damsel in distress but still, it totally ruins the set-up at how Stark could conclusively prove that he can be Iron Man without his suit. Granted, it’s a really tight corner they put Stark in and I’ll admit that even me, while watching the film, could think of no way it would end well for Stark without the involvement of Extremis (or equivalent) on his side.

Overall, if you’re in for a more logical-take on the comic books and yet retains that comic-book feel, Iron Man 3 will be an enjoyable two hours, if not a bit rushed. Maybe, it’s just the case that I’ve been expecting a Nolan where Nolan is not involved. Maybe, the people behind Marvel’s Cinematic Universe just raised questions for which they have no adequate set-up to provide satisfactory answers. It’s a fact that superhero movies are meant to be enjoyed with quite a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief—Iron Man 3 is no different. Maybe, if you just take the whole thing by face value, you’d find that it plays along finely.

  1. Take away the iron from Iron Man and he’s just a man. Okay, sorry I even made the joke but I can’t help it. []
  2. At this point, I find it funny how the Iron Man suit was able to withstand impacts from the Mjolnir, wielded by no less than Thor (cf. The Avengers), and yet they tear like paper against the  Extremis’ fire power. []