Sunday, December 30, 2007

War is a perfectly starched white apron

The greatest tracking shot I've ever seen is the one that concludes the Battle of Agincourt in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, the quintessential war-is-mud film. Carrying Falstaff's boy (young Christian Bale), Henry (who else but Branagh) travels the length of the field, finally getting to the slight rise at the end to gently deposit the boy's dead body and bow his weary head in victory. There are longer ones, and more technically advanced ones, but to me there are no more moving ones than this. [YouTube it here.]

Part of its effect is due to the fact that all sound is completely blanked out by the music, which begins with a single singer singing Non Nobis and merges into an orchestral chorus that climaxes with Henry's stand on the hill.

I've just summed up the little something extra that Atonement, the film of Ian McEwan's great novel, is lacking. Sadly -- as in it makes me sad, not that the film is sad and pathetic. As a matter of fact, it's quite good, but Joe Wright, the young director, doesn't seem to quite know yet how to give things their maximum punch. The much-buzzed-about tracking shot is technically superb, but it has no point; it doesn't focus tightly enough on Robbie to be about him, and the chaos of Dunkirk could just as well be shown in a series of shots. Similarly, Atonement's score is damn annoying, with its oh-so-clever-and-ominous repetitive typewriter key sounds and plinking piano. It's also too loud, like Merchant Ivory to the max. Give the film its epic sweep and its epic score. Nobody's asking you to John Williams it; Gustavo Santaolalla has shown what you can do with a simple score.

Which brings me to the other odd filmic comparison I want to make, Brokeback Mountain. Without giving away too much, Cecilia and Robbie's star- and war-crossed love doesn't have the dramatic forbidden quality of Jack and Ennis', nor does it have the beautiful symbolic quality of Ang Lee's art direction. Were the color tones off here? Did James MacAvoy just need to be in a shirt that matched his pretty blue eyes? Well... maybe. The stark simplicity of Brokeback, with its black and white hats and clean shirts, does a lot to monumentalize their love and make its loss worth regretting.

Interestingly, Wright tries some of the same things; Cecilia looks absolutely gorgeous even in a bomb shelter (and not at all unhealthily thin, so I take back what I said about the trailer), and Briony's hospital apron remains impossibly white through hundreds of incoming wounded. But instead of Brokeback's bright quality, it comes across more like Cold Mountain where you wonder how Nicole Kidman is getting her eyebrows waxed in the middle of plowing time.

'Tis a pity. The script is not bad, though I don't love all the choices they made, and the acting is very good all around. It may not be coming across, but I liked and enjoyed the film. It just didn't quite reach the top of the mountain.

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