Sunday, January 23, 2011

Atonement: iffy title, silly story, awful posters. Also, Great Film.

I recently saw Atonement after several years of avoidance. Why the hesitation, you ask, for a story about Brits and WWII, which received glowing reviews? There were three main reasons:

- The title. Unique, aye, but ponderous-sounding. This reason, however, takes a back seat to...
- The story. Girl falsely accuses young man, who is then thrust into WWII, but remains fixated on getting back to his beloved? Not too promising. But the biggest factor in my avoiding it was...
- The Poster. Being in London at the time, I only saw the UK poster, which I now present to you:


This poster is, to put it politely, garbage; it might not be as awful as this The King's Speech one-sheet, but it's close. Knightley looks bored; putting pretty flora on the top and bottom makes the thing look like a Hallmark card (thus promising a drearily bland take on war) and the tagline isn't just awful on its own merits, its grating sentimentality also doesn't at all fit the tone of movie itself.

Looking online, I found a few more posters:


This one's a huge improvement; it isn't quite great, but it's good enough. Airbrushing McAvoy's bruises away was a dumb move, but putting him against the war backdrop gives the image some much-needed gravity nonetheless, and effectively shows how far apart fate has dragged the lovers. Knightley's pose isn't as striking as his, but at least she doesn't look bored anymore, and the new tagline, while still a bit weird, is also leagues better than the other. The overall image isn't too memorable, and still has that Hallmark feel, but it is pretty, even if it leaves us wondering what exactly these two good-looking people have to atone for.

Here's the best poster I found:


The desaturated look and hidden face produce a cold, mysterious picture, and it actually features the movie's protagonist. While it fudges the location of the all-important act of seeing that sets the story in motion, it at least hints at that story, whereas the above posters only hint at a mood. Despite yet another annoying tagline, this is a very good poster, though it was doubtless deemed too inaccessible to those totally unfamiliar with the story to be the main version.


This is a noble effort, and it's the only one to feature Knightley's eye-popping dress, which no one who sees the film is ever likely to forget. And it's a great shot of young Briony, but it's just too busy, and: that damn tagline, again.

Enough griping, you say. Can I do better? Well, here's a quick draft:


The grayscale/color mix gives this image a much-needed kick, if I may say so myself. You get the war, the green dress, no tagline, lots of implied drama in the lower shot, and, for those who're familiar with the story, the symbolic whiteness of the quietly-placed Briony produces all sorts of irony.

Now, why am I spending so much time on this movie? Because it's a great film. The appropriateness of the title is wonderfully debatable and thought-provoking. The story is indeed silly (an absurd amount of disasters happening in the span of a single day, really), but it's a grandiose sort of silly, and in that respect is not dissimilar to the similarly dream-like Apocalypse Now. Moreover, in being bravely-directed enough to take itself absolutely seriously, it reaches an operatic magnificence that more benignly-believable tales hardly ever reach, or even aspire to. We humans need an occasional full-on myth, and this is just such a work.

As for the staidness implied by the poster? Atonement is about as staid as North by Northwest.

In short: see this movie. It's one of the best of the last decade.

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