Atonement is this year's Crash
A couple of years ago on this site I deemed Crash "one of the worst films I've seen in recent memory." Shortly thereafter, the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Affronted, I quoted an overwhelmingly negative review by LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas to back up my claim.
This year, after watching Atonement and harboring similar feelings about the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning period piece, I returned to the Internets in hopes of finding a review I could again quote, but a cursory review of Rotten Tomatoes produced no such satisfactorily negative text. Two quick pulls, however: The New York Times' A.O. Scott called it "an almost classical example of how pointless, how diminishing, the transmutation of literature into film can be," and The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, in an assessment surprisingly free of vitriol, allowed that he "hardly believed a word of it." However, Atonement currently has scores of 82 and 85 at Rotten Tomatoes and metacritic, respectively (which metacritic categorizes as "Universal Acclaim"). These are even higher marks than Crash's; Atonement also took home the Best Drama Golden Globe, which has been a decent predictor of Oscar-winners. This scares me.
That said, I'm no critic, and I've no desire to become one--on some level I think film critic and filmmaker are mutually exclusive occupations--so it's unlikely that I'll elucidate my feelings about the film as well as a bona fide professional would. Nevertheless, my problems with Atonement stem from its cart-before-the-horse writing; sure, it has drama, beauty, twists, reveals, and all the things they teach you in screenwriting class, but none of the events feel justified by truth. The characters aren't driving the story; the narrative is instead driven by the writer(s) wanting to get to a certain point, and coming up with totally implausible ways to get there. I say "writer(s)" because these complaints may be uniquely directed at screenwriter Christopher Hampton's adaptation--or they may be equally valid criticisms of Ian McEwan's source text. Not having read the book, and now harboring no desire to do so, I can't say. But without getting into any spoilers, let me ask: have you ever written multiple version of a letter--say one was handwritten and one typed, so by appearance they are quite differentiated, even at a glance--and then proceeded to sign, fold, seal, and send the wrong one, with the right one sitting on your desk face-up (right next to your Cambridge scholarship)? What if one of the letters was a filthy joke you'd written for your eyes only (implausibly), and the other one was an apology you were sending to your true love--via the hand of a nosy 12 year-old girl? Perhaps not the time to haphazardly stuff an envelope with (apparently) your eyes closed. Well, that's just what a certain character in Atonement does, setting off many of the tragic events to follow. If there’s anything to atone for in the film, it’s apparently Being A Dumbass.
This, along with several other occurrences in the film's first act, left me with an overwhelming desire to walk out of the theater; instead, I subjected myself to the remainder, in order to write home that Atonement is nothing to write home about. Indeed, the film is a shoddily-constructed soap opera--finely crafted at times, but less believable than an episode of "As the World Turns" (or whichever daytime soap is the least plausible). If Atonement was a construction project, and director Joe Wright was the foreman on the effort, then he should be evaluated as having done a proficient job with the interior decoration, weatherproofing, HVAC, and plumbing; however, he built the whole house on a faulty foundation, made not of concrete but rather of shit.
If it wins the Oscar I'll tell you how I really feel.