Atonement preview screening

The local cinema had a very early preview of Atonement today, followed by a live-via-satellite question and answer session with its director: Joe Wright. Abi and I were there, and the following is spoiler-free…

The cinema was only half-full, and I was probably the only person in the room not to have read the book. It’s been heavily recommended by many people over the last few years, but after getting distracted two chapters in I never got around to carrying on – there’s nothing duller than re-reading for forgotten but necessary details1. It’s one of Abi’s favourite novels, and she was very concerned the story would be changed for the film. She’s not a purist, and shares my view that it’s unreasonable to expect what works on paper to work on-screen, but didn’t want the spirit altered, particularly in relation to the ending. We thought it would be interesting to see our differing reactions if this did happen, given that I didn’t know the story in advance.

Abi was very, very happy to find the film was almost completely faithful to the book, and she had no quarrel with the ending. She’ll have a review up shortly on her blog2, and will likely focus on this aspect, so I’ll stick to the non-book elements.

I enjoyed it. I liked the different, clever story, and thought it was well-structured. I was concerned for a while that it might wander off into Closer-like endless introspection, but it didn’t: this made me happy. I don’t think I’m as easily moved as I used to be3 but plenty around me were in tears for one reason or another, and I could see that it was touching at times. There was plenty for the filmmaking-geek in me to watch, too: interesting camerawork and filter effects, and one shot in particular was stunningly composed (waiting; outside; green dress; you’ll know it when you see it).

Joe Wright said afterwards that he felt Keira Knightley had grown into a woman since working with her in Pride and Prejudice, and I could see what he meant. She’s always had a girlish element – not a criticism, by the way – but here she was fully mature, and completely convincing. I couldn’t fault any of the acting – spot Brenda Blethyn, if you can – but she was the standout performer.

The Q&A session with the director was fascinating. He apparently read and completely rejected the original script, which changed the entire structure and major plot elements of the story, then worked with the same writer to fix it. That can’t be an easy conversation 🙂 He had some insights into working with actors, notably the trick of spotting and eradicating the ‘tick’ that actors default into when they don’t know what to do – for Miss Knightley, it’s apparently pouting. He also slagged off the ‘adolescent’ notion that happy endings are always trite, and had things to say about the stand-there-and-look-pretty portrayal of women in Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Los Angeles audience asked questions, which ranged from pretty vague ‘I love James McAvoy, please talk about him’ to specific questions on styles of camerawork, all of which were eloquently answered. Perhaps the most interesting was the woman who asked what he’d like to improve upon, which, to his credit, he answered honestly – he picked out a scene which doesn’t match the vision in his head. The session lasted perhaps 45 minutes, and although a little sycophantic was definitely worthwhile in my view.

I could have done with a little longer between the film and the Q&A to get my head around some of the themes. It doesn’t give anything away to say that the concept of storytelling has a major structural and thematic role, but I’d have felt more intellectually satisfied if I’d figured it out myself rather than had it explained to me. That’s my fault, though – I should have read it before 🙂

I personally can’t see anybody leaving the cinema and not thinking it time well spent. Even if you don’t like the story, it’s interesting enough to linger, and fun to analyse. Definitely recommended by me.

Incidentally, such an early screening prompted huge security from the cinema. A burly security guard on the door warned the queue that all mobile phones and recording devices must be switched off. This was reiterated once we were seated, and there was somebody sitting next to the screen throughout the film, watching the audience. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, I’m intrigued that cinemas are willing to do it, and wish they’d bother for enjoyment as opposed to copyright protection. I’d happily pay more to attend a cinema that has guards watching for people making noise – I’d say it’s a problem in 1/3 films.

  1. I’m 2/3 through Saturday, my first Ian McEwan, atm []
  2. may not be spoiler-free []
  3. which annoys me, actually – I like dramatic emotional responses! []