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Film Review: Atonement

August 9, 2013 2 comments

Atonement (2007; Directed by Joe Wright)

What could have been a prim and pleasant blandishment of an adaptation instead retains the visceral and unforgiving longing of Ian McEwan’s quite outstanding novel. Director Joe Wright is much more assured with his camera (and, vitally, in his editing suite) than he was in Pride & Prejudice, showing impressive control of actors and visual imagery (especially in a grand single-shot sweep across a beach in Dunkirk littered with the human and materiel detritus of the infamous army evacuation there in June 1940). But then he has much better material to work with here, with all apologies to Jane-ites (P&P was never her literary peak anyway, you know).

Atonement begins with a momentous occurence in the lives of three people (and maybe a few more) on an English country estate in the 1930s that profoundly alters the trajectory of their lives on into the Second World War. An expected path of romance is violently diverted by shocking accusations of a truthfulness that proves dubious. McEwan is well and truly fascinated by chance circumstances snowballing and escalating into tragedy, as his less-accomplished novel Saturday demonstrates, but there’s more than merely such thematic gristle in this narrative mill.

Hollywood prestige film It Girl Keira Knightley grabbed many of the accolades as Cecilia, even if she continues to fail to find a role she couldn’t approach in roughly the same way as she did her last one. But James McAvoy gets true first billing as her star-crossed lover, and he deserves it: his Robbie Turner endures wound after wound and somehow soldiers on with a grim, hollowed-out determination (or so we’re lead to think). Watch, also, for a then-little-known Benedict Cumberbatch as an expertly slimy creeper of a millionaire who plays a key role in the seismic events at the country estate.

What makes this film more than another soppy costume-drama Brit-mance, however, is the role of Briony (played with utter conviction at different ages by three actresses, including superb Oscar-nominated teen Saorsie Ronan), and her shaping of this story for her own purposes and for ours. The younger sister of Cecilia lets her teenaged fancies run away with her at a crucial moment, but her transmutation of those fancies inform a later attempt to set the troubled circumstances somewhat right, if only retroactively.

Atonement, in novel and in film form, isn’t just about love and class or judgement and forgiveness in the way an Austen novel can tend to be, on its surface. Atonement is about the sublime dishonesty of storytelling, and how crafting soothing narratives obscures the harsher truths of our blasted heath of a modern reality. And the fact that Wright’s film manages to convey such complex and destabilizing concepts while maintaining its haunting loveliness and inherently longing for completion makes it pretty darned great.

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Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on Bath

August 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Romans and Georgian British alike agreed that Bath was a charming place to relax in, and modern travelers can see the wisdom in the opinion. The ages-old resort town in West Somerset has some natural advantages of landscape, nestled in the verdant valley of the River Avon, with its course winding through the town. But what might otherwise have developed as a quaint riverside country town instead became a sought-after retreat for centuries due to another natural advantage: the hot springs that bubble to the surface in the area.

Visiting Bath today puts the continuity of its function as a northern oasis through multiple ages of history into sharp relief. The remarkable archaeological site and interpretive museum erected around the excavated ruins of the Roman Baths of Aquae Sulis testifies to the city’s role in the Roman-ruled Britain of the mid-1st Century AD: not merely a centre of comfort and physical relaxation, but a focal point of pagan worship in connection with the sacred spring.

The museum displays and archaeological pits laid open for visitors are amazing enough, but next to the Great Bath itself, standing on the Roman paving stones with the much later terrace and neo-classical statues above, a different impression reigns. A past both dead and living drifts with the steam off of the heated waters there, a history utilitarian and recreational, physical and spiritual. From certain views, the white stone Bath Abbey (standing on the spot where the first King of all England was crowned in the 10th Century) rises above the entire scene, adding a whole other dimension of history and aesthetic effect to the scene.

Elsewhere, the legacy of the town’s status as a preferred retreat for the monied invalids and hypochondriacs of the Georgian and Regency eras is felt more strongly, particularly in John Wood the Younger’s residential architectural icons from the period, the Royal Crescent and the Circus. Jane Austen is the most renowned of these transplanted residents, though not during her own lifetime, and she was famously quite miserable in Bath. “Who can ever be tired of Bath?”, a line from Catherine Morland, her lead character in Northanger Abbey, is often attributed to Austen herself and stripped of the biting sarcasm with which she clearly meant it. “Taking the waters” of Bath’s spa was a catch-all prescription to cure various ills in the pre-bacterial medical prognoses of the day. This meant both immersion in and consumption of the spring-fed liquid, despite the astronomically high bacterial content (ironic, really) and the odd taste of the water. Still, no small number of comfortable gentlemen and ladies made the city their semi-permanent convalescent home in this time, and the attendant wealth has never really decamped.

It’s this legacy of luxury that predominates in the city today, and not only in its historic Georgian architectural tradition, either. The streets of central Bath, like those of any other popular travel destination, are now dotted with corporate chain shops, expensive local boutiques, and gourmet dining; the SouthGate area near the train station has even been redeveloped into a spotless open-air shopping mall, its scrubbed new three-story white-gold Bath Stone facades approximating the older edifices in the old town. As much as the conscientious class warrior feels compelled to bemoan such consumerist penetration, it’s more appropriate in Bath than most such developments in historic places. Its heritage is one of bourgeois consumption, after all, back to the Georgians and even to the Romans, to some extent. Continued consumption can’t honestly be considered anything but valid, from this point of view at least.

All of this background sets Bath up as a playground for the rich with a few historic sites to draw in the masses, and it’s hardly merely that. Like most of the country, Bath holds onto a stolid English charm despite the onslaught of corporate consumerism, and refuses to relinquish the gentility and ease that retreating visitors have sought there for centuries. Spanish guitar notes in a square, afternoon tea down on a quiet street, and a stroll along a flowing river all have an eternal appeal to a weary vacationing soul. It helps if the weather holds, too, and if it does then Bath can offer the above as well as the deep historical roots of its more famed diversions. Whatever those diversions and that history may be, they mean little if the current incarnation of the place fails to envelop the visitor in the same way. But Bath still has the power to enrapture, and who as long as it does, who indeed can ever be tired of it?

Categories: Culture, History, Travel

A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on Edinburgh

August 4, 2013 1 comment

A common line on Edinburgh, Scotland (no doubt fully approved by the city tourism board) is that during the festival month of August, when the Fringe Theatre Fest, Military Tattoo, and various other arts and culture extravaganzas consume the civic scene, it may be the most exciting city in the world. But what is Edinburgh the rest of the time? Historically and contemporaneously Scotland’s governmental, financial, and cultural capital, Edinburgh has both a stiffer, more formal reputation than its rougher industrial urban rival of Glasgow and a looser profile than the grim, traditional cities of nearby Northern England.

A peculiar mix of vestigial Presbyterian propriety and rugged self-reliance of the displaced Highlanders persists in Edinburgh today, and can still be discerned beneath the thick lacquer of globalized consumer capitalism that is layered onto the deep historical foundations of all major UK centres. It is more liberal and more conservative than a city like London in different ways (and is definitely much less multicultural), and outside of its tourist bottlenecks is doubtlessly possessed of less bustle than the massive metropolitan capital to theIMG_2059 south.

The sturdiest and most bustling of those bottlenecks is the Royal Mile, the high-to-low road winding along the herringbone spur of the Old Town from the heights of Castlehill to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the base of the rocky bulk of Arthur’s Seat (a hearty enough hike to the top, though not even a mountain, technically). The vertical tenement buildings that line the Mile now house souvenir shops hawking tartans and wool, oak-shelved scotch whiskey emporiums, overpriced pubs and restaurants of dubious quality, and museums, with luxury private residences above them. But their stones (their soft, absorbent surfaces blackened iconically by industrial soot) were once home to striving professionals and tradesmen, writers and philosophers, and destitute labourers, packed tight like sardines in the most grittily magnificent crushed tin box in urban Scotland.

Though the working class is far from vanished from Scottish life (their thick brogue, near-unintelligible to speakers on North American English, can be encountered here and there on the street or in the pub), the Old Town has spruced itself up and pedestrianized quite trimly, as befits a very old historical city centre in Europe. A sophisticated traveler may strike a pose of bemusement when faced with the blaring bagpipe music from the Thistle Do Nicelys, the dressed-up William Wallace buskers, and particularly the ubiquitous nighttime haunted tours. But something strange and gothic does indeed hang in the air in Edinburgh, drifting in on the maritime mist off the North Sea and lurking in the narrow winding closes that burrow down from the Mile like shafts into the city’s murky unconscious. Edinburgh’s macabre history of kings thrown from steeds over cliffs, religious martyrs, and burglar deacons doesn’t reduce the mysterious foreboding either.

This same mystery is not as discernible in the Georgian architectural symmetries of New Town, nor in the respectable inner suburbs. Even on the Royal Mile itself, one finds the feeling dissipates as the street’s eastern terminus is approached, with the strenuous modernism of the new Scottish Parliament Building (its jagged thrusts and brown-pole canopies sketching the suggestion of a defiant wooden Highland hill-fort) and the gated royal palace opposite it. Indeed, besides the slight differences in accent and the occasional notes of Bank of Scotland funny-money, much of Edinburgh would seem to be indistinguishable from any other part of the modern UK, and carries no more ineffable inscrutability than any other older city.

IMG_2072The will to modernity aside, this same foggy darkness that has hung around the popularly-disseminated image of Scottishness (a remnant of the influence of Macbeth on subsequent conceptions of the region, its people, and its culture, perhaps) is representative of a conception of Scotland’s past that the country attempts to capitalize on economically while reconciling its rough edges with a vision of its imagined future. After recent devolution legislation, the new Scottish Parliament houses something resembling a national government for the first time in over three centuries, and the Scottish National Party and other nationalist groups continue to agitate for independence from the British Union in the near future (despite middling support for this course of sovereignty among Scotland’s citizenry).

Although couched in more contemporary political terms (nuclear disarmament paramount among them), the dream of Scottish independence seems less a vision of its future than of its past, a vision that persists in the popular worldwide consciousness and therefore in Scotland’s tourist zones as well. That resilient image of Braveheart Scottishness – of lusty, fiercely loyal liberty of action and nose-thumbing resistance to the malicious influence of the usurping English – holds sway with the common visitor to a place like Edinburgh, and with so much exposure to it, how can even a local resident keep this discourse at bay?

It isn’t crystal clear that Scots firmly believe in the tartan-clad, haggis-wolfing version of their national identity, haunted as it is by so many pained ghosts and crushing defeats. On balance, the Act of Union has been good for Scotland, enabling its Enlightenment, its industrial development, and its economic assimilation into modern capitalism; a clean (or unclean, as a separation would more likely be) break from all of this would not necessarily be in the interest of even a more fully sovereign Scotland. But Scots do put plentiful effort into purposely selling this archaic image of Scotland to those from elsewhere who spend money in Scotland. Under the ideological imperatives of modern capitalism, is there any functional difference between believe in something and working hard to sell it to someone? Whatever a visitor understands Scotland as being now, they also must apprehend these durable (if stereotypical) elements of the national identity.

Categories: Culture, History, Politics, Travel

A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on London

August 2, 2013 1 comment

Like every great metropolis (and there fewer than you might think), London, England has a terrible inevitability about it. It’s enormous, sprawling, thronging with millions of residents and a few million more visitors at any given time. It overwhelms with its culture, cuisine, official institutions, and historic sites. Samuel Johnson said, “There is in London all that life can afford,” and it may be a truer aphorism now than it was in the 18th Century. London, as a city, is entirely too much, but that feels like just enough.

A scant few days is hardly enough to get London’s full measure, of course, but it will do for a rough sketch of an impression of this very old and richly-detailed civic experiment. Like many great old cities, London has both preserved and obliterated the physical traces of its centuries of historical change and upheaval. Much of the lost architectural heritage was not due to intentional planning, granted; the twin cataclysms of the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz during WWII wreaked havoc on the established edifices of the old City of London (the capitalization denotes the designation for the old walled medieval city alone, rather than the larger metropolitan area) three centuries apart.

But then again, much of the erasure was purposeful, from the dissolution of the monasteries and whitewashing iconoclasm of church interiors during the Reformation to the furious post-war building boom of the 20th and early 21st centuries that has filled the City and its suburbs (the Docklands in particular) with glass-fronted towers as monuments to the ravenous British mercantile spirit. Plenty has survived, from architect Christopher Wren’s great post-fire projects (St. Paul’s Cathedral chief among them) to medieval-derived national landmarks like Westminster Abbey (with its flying buttresses, royal tombs, and clustered monuments) and the Tower of London (once a prison for high-profile treason cases, now inhabited by gigantic, hoary ravens and the famous Beefeaters, who are now glorified tour guides). But London has always been a town of inexorable progress, and that means that buildings don’t always stay up for long, no matter their historical value.

This is not to suggest that only that which is old is good and that which is new is not. Relatively new institutions like the Underground, its lines spider-webbing ever further into the suburbs (though not as much south of the Thames, for whatever reason), or the massive British Museum have become staples alongside the older national monuments, as have 21st Century additions like the popular London Eye ferris wheel or the sleek “Gherkin” skyscraper at 30 St. Mary Axe. And although the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ascendancy holds stubborn sway in the City and Westminster, the muticultural stew of the metropolis asserts itself more and more with each passing year.

The new visitor is understandably consumed by the keenly-felt obligation to tick the major, must-see sights off the list, to make secular pilgrimages to the travellers’ beacons. One must photograph Big Ben, peek through the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace, ride the red double-decker buses, pose at the iconic (but still active and thus dangerous) Abbey Road zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles; surely enough (with the exception of the last activity), I dutifully fulfilled all of these obligations.

Hyde ParkBut travel, one must hope, ought to be more than doing what millions have done before, in the same spot, in the same way. London affords ample opportunity for such off-the-beaten path experiences, though you might need to veer from the comfort of the tourist circuit to find them. A stroll or even guided tour of one of the Magnificent Seven Victorian-era cemeteries might do the trick; we opted for Highgate, the most famed and oft-atmospheric of these sylvan necropolises. Rather than indulging in luxury accessories at Harrod’s department store, why not grab takeaway from its sparkling (and surprisingly non-dear) food hall and take a seat by the Serpentine pond in Hyde Park for a picnic (just keep an eye on those swans)? Skip the massive block of inferior art that is the Tate Modern and try out the Tate Britain instead, with its encyclopedic collection of paintings by the country’s greatest artist, J.M.W. Turner. Wander the Temple and the Inns of Court, once the stronghold of the Knights Templar and long the domain of the equally-sinister practitioners of the legal profession. Give the South Bank of the Thames a chance, too; it’s got some wonderful hidden gems.

I’d hate to entirely privilege the mainstream vs. alternative dichotomy that characterizes travel just as surely as it does other sectors of our culture, mind you. The top sights more than earn their tour-book stripes, despite the lengthy queues and clustering tour groups. But the plethora of options and ease of public transporation in London means that you can freely choose which top sights are of greatest interest, and maybe, if you’re lucky, discover a few of your own.

London is, above all, the world’s great hybridized city. It has nearly the history of Rome, most of the culture of Paris, the modern economic thrust of New York or Chicago, a entertainment-world glamour that approximates that of a toned-down, humbler Los Angeles, and the idiosyncratic sensibility of the dozens of English villages that its ravenous expansion has swallowed and from which it has attracted countless ambitious new residents. The phrase has tended to take on fundamentally ironic usage of late, but one can say with sincere honesty that London contains multitudes. Though it may be a bit early to map out another pass, it’s quite clear that the city would richly reward return visits.

Categories: Culture, History, Travel