I'll have to tread through this one gingerly, because it's a mine field. It's
a film which is one of the best-reviewed of the year 2007. It was honored with
many Golden Globe nominations, including the big enchilada: "Best Picture, Drama." It is rated so
high at IMDb that it will soon join the all-time immortals in the Olympus 250.
And I wasn't very impressed. I found it a good movie, but not a memorable
Many reviewers cast their raves in the form of solemn praise for a faithful
literary adaptation. Not having read Ian McEwan's novel, and having received no
motivation to do so from this film, I have no way to determine how successfully
the film transmuted McEwan's literary elements into cinema gold, but I could see
some major problems right from the start.
In the film's first act there are events which are presented from two
different points of view, the first time from the perspective of a 13-year-old
girl, the second in close-up detail from an objective perspective. This sort of
narrative technique makes a lot of sense in a novel, because a 13-year-old
narrator controls every detail of what we see and hear. We only know what she
knows, we only see what she tells us about in the manner she chooses to tell it,
and our perspective is completely limited by hers. If we then re-experience the
same events through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, or through the
counter-perspective of an adult who was also there, we may be shocked and
edified by the second telling. But a camera is not the written page. Although I
may witness a filmed event from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl, I am
still processing and interpreting what I see with my brain, not with hers, and I
am filling in the missing details with my experience, not with her lack thereof.
As I result, I can immediately see what really transpired and I can see that she
misinterprets or misunderstands it. I don't need to have the events run through
a second time. The director ignores this reality and plunges forward with the
retelling anyway. And he uses the repetition device twice, with two separate events. In each
case, the second perspective showed me nothing I had not already figured out the
first time. It was just a superfluous device which slowed down a narrative which
was already crawling at a snail's pace.
As a result of several misunderstandings, combined with some inchoate sexual
jealousy on the part of the young girl, the brat ends up accusing her sister's
working class lover of a serious crime which he did not commit.
His punishment for this crime is to be deported to another film.
It's a good film, but one completely unrelated to the one we have been
The false accusation occurred in a stately English country estate in 1935.
The new film takes place on the battlefields of WW2, in the events leading up to
and including the historic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from
the French port of Dunkirk. Off-camera, in the five intervening years, our
working class hero was imprisoned, then offered a chance for parole if he
decided to volunteer for combat. His sudden appearance in a WW2 combat film
serves to slow down the main storyline still further. Will the lovers get a
chance to re-unite? Will the little sister find a way to achieve atonement for
her false accusation? Well, I'll tell you ... as soon as I insert this 40-minute
documentary about the horrors of war on both sides of the Channel. There is the
misery and squalor of the soldiers being tended to in the hospitals back home.
There is the grotesque misery of the soldiers in combat and in Dunkirk,
discovering the mass murder of civilians, shooting their horses to keep them
from the Germans, singing sad songs of better days, stealing from the corpses,
coping with disease and starvation. There are some impressive set pieces, but
they serve no purpose other than to delay the awaited resumption of the story we
Say, just what is happening with those three people anyway?
Finally, after nearly two hours of a pace which would lose a race to tectonic
shifting, the film resolves everything with a voice-over narration told by the
erstwhile false accuser, who is now an elderly novelist. It's actually a brief response to
a chat show question. Time expended: maybe a minute. Don't make the mistake of
leaving the theater a minute early, because without that talk show answer, you
lose ... oh, about 100% of the film's plot.
This film has an excellent chance to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
It may even win, because it has everything the Academy demands of a winner:
impressive literary provenance, gravitas, British accents, and unrelenting
misery. It has some characters dying tragically young, and an old character
dying of a horrible disease. It has an upright young man convicted of pedophilia
and sent to prison. It has the actual pedophiliac escaping scot-free. It has
horrible cousins with terrible family secrets. It has lovers frustrated and
separated. It shows mass murders committed by Nazis. It pictures wounded men
disfigured by combat. The screenwriter made only one miscalculation in his Oscar
grab. At the end, when the 13-year-old girl has become an old woman dying of a
disease which will soon cause dementia, the script should have arranged for the
old woman to die of AIDS instead. That would have made perfect sense, because
the character was born in 1922, and was played by 70-year-old Vanessa Redgrave,
so a 1992 death of AIDS would have fit in ideally. Voila! Instant Oscar. Oh,
sure, the film still has Nazi atrocities and false imprisonment - Mr. Schindler
meet Mr. Shawshank - but without the AIDS, it's only guaranteed a
nomination, not a victory.