So much of how you experience a film can be tied up in what you know about it going in. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is. I knew only the bare bones of this story: A young girl misunderstands something she sees, tells a lie, and lives are forever changed. I also knew that the part of Briony, the liar, would be played by three different actresses, including Vanessa Redgrave, so there would be some sort of coda telling us how it all came out. And the movie played out according to classic lines. This is a very old-fashioned movie, I was thinking. English countryside, well-brought-up people, then wartime, hardships, epic scope of the evacuation at Dunkirk. Briony knows of the depth of her folly. Will she ever be able to make up for it? From the title, I was guessing she would.
Then it threw me for a totally unexpected loop. I will not reveal it here, but will say it comes late in the movie … and thus it felt, at least a little bit, like a cheat. I don’t object to learning that some of the things I was seeing were false, or were deliberately leading me down the garden path. Suffice it to say that the standard story I thought was being told was not the story at all. And here is where expectations come in, because that revelation came so late that it couldn’t erase my feelings that this was a pretty standard story, of the sort those legendary octogenarian Oscar voters simply eat up, and it would be a favorite for Best Picture this year but really shouldn’t be. And I still feel that way. It was a very good movie, but not in the top five of the ones I saw this year.
A word about another nomination: Saoirse Ronan (pronounced “sur-shah,” believe it or not; those crazy Irish, huh?) as the 13-year-old Briony. She was quite good, but I didn’t think she deserved this in a year when Dana Fuchs as Sadie in Across the Universe just blew me away. In fact, I thought Romola Garai, as 18-year-old Briony, was better. There was a nice touch here, in that all three actresses had a little mole under their left eye. Romola and Saoirse already looked a lot like sisters, and this clinched it, psychologically; my face-recognition software was convinced they were the same person, at different ages.
And one more comment concerning the most talked-about scene in the movie: A five-minute tracking shot of the chaos of Dunkirk. It jarred me a little, as I guess it was meant to: “You ain’t in polite old England any more, Robbie-me-boy!” But as I began to realize this was another of those long, long steadicam shots that now seem almost obligatory … I got a little pissed. Showing off, I figured. This sort of camera work calls attention to itself, so you should have a very good reason for doing it. Turns out they did, and I’m grateful to the IMDb, once more, for the story. They had the beach and 1000 extras for only two days (budgetary concerns), and the light was wrong the first day. Next day they were desperate, and couldn’t afford to do a lot of camera setups, which can take hours. So they decided to do it in one. They did four takes, and used the third. My apologies to the director.