Monday, July 13, 2009

Adoration, Great Expectations

This week's headline movie is the perfect cure to the generally abysmal quality of cinema fare at this point of the summer blockbuster season. If you have already suffered through Transformers II, I have the perfect prescription: Adoration.
Adoration (Atom Egoyan, 2008) (Bayers Lake) As a translation exercise, Simon's (Devon Bostick) French teacher reads his class an article about the attempted bombing of an El Al flight to Tel Aviv - the would-be bomber had planted explosives in his pregnant wife's carry on luggage. Having lost his father, Sami (Noam Jenkins) and mother, Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), in a questionable accident years earlier, the article inspires Simon to write a dramatic monologue re-imagining his past through the lens of this scenario: with his middle-eastern father as the bomber and his Canadian mother, a concert violinist, as the hapless bomb mule.

Simon's French teacher, Sabine (Arsinee Khanjian), also of middle-eastern extraction, encourages Simon to polish the monologue and to present it at the school drama festival. Although the school principal vetoes this idea, the simple but powerful narrative seems to take on a life of its own as Simon posts it on the internet and more and more people are touched by it.

The movie follows the growing shock waves created by the monologue on the internet through Simon's laptop computer screen, which starts with a nine-person video chat discussing the issue but slowly expands to 30, 40, 50, and maybe even 60 small windows filled with strangers united by the monologue but bitterly divided by the political, religious, and social beliefs that they impose on the narrative - all in the belief that it is a non-fiction account of the actual events surrounding the attempted bombing

This virtual widening of the influence of the monologue is mirrored in Simon's real life, where - like their internet counterparts - many seem unaware that the events described are inspired by true events and personal trauma rather than a direct recounting of the facts of the matter. Indeed, scenes where Simon reads from his composition are chilling, with his voice a matter-of-fact monotone relating a compelling but confusing and frightening tale: for most of the movie I was unaware that the monologue was fictional, although in retrospect there is nothing to suggest the opposite - a confusion that I think Egoyan exploits beautifully.

Sabine is almost immediately ensnared by the influence of the monologue, and ends up intimately involved not only with the fictional account of Simon's bereavement, but with the non-fictional reality of its legacy. This legacy includes Tom (Scott Speedman doing an excellent job with a complex role), Simon's older brother and reluctant guardian since the death of his parents, and the specter of racial intolerance - embodied by Simon's grandfather, Morris (Kenneth Walsh) - that has haunted the family since Rachel first brought Sami home

Simon maintains an impressive/disturbing equanimity through this entire process. He seems like a dispassionate documentarian weaving his unsettling fiction on the one hand, even as we learn his version of the "real" story of his parents meeting, marrying, and ultimately dying through a series of flashbacks on the other. A story that intimately touches the lives of Simon, Tom, Sabine, Morris, and - of course - Sami and Rachel - in a web of fear, loss, and recrimination. There is light at the end of the film, however, as Simon, Tom, and Sabine seem to reach a point where they can move beyond the trauma that has brought them together.

Adoration is a complex film that probably warrants multiple viewings to fully understand the relationships between its main characters, the issues that each is working through, and the highly relevant theme of intolerance. It is beautifully shot in dark, saturated colours that often present the speaker as if in a spotlight, with shadows behind, giving an intimacy and immediacy to what is being related. I was also struck by the music, which seemed to be integral to the theme of each scene both in terms of ambiance/tone and subject matter. In particular, I think of XTC's Dear God, which played in the background as a member of the internet chat forum raves about the 40 virgins said to be awaiting Muslim martyrs in the next world.

I loved this film, passionately. It seemed to caress the viewer like gentle waves on the surface of an inky-black lake that is as beautiful as it is chillingly cold and frighteningly inscrutable in depth.

Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron, 1998) I finished reading Dickens' Great Expectations this weekend, and feel like I lived a whole life inside the novel, a feeling I remember having after David Copperfield as well. While reading the novel I made a resolution to revisit Cuaron's modern reinterpretation, which I first viewed in the theater in Seoul. I remembered greatly enjoying the film, but had only blurred remembrances of its substance.

So, with Dickens' words echoing in my mind, I closed the back cover of the novel, flicked on the flat-screen, and pressed play. From the opening moments of the film I was in love with this modern re-imagining of Pip's trials and tribulations, as told through the story of Fin (Ethan Hawke, fitting the role, but looking overly pathetic when introduced), a budding young artist, his unattainable love Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the snarling, pit bull convict/benefactor Lustig (a powerhouse performance by the brilliantly cast Robert DeNiro giving ). I could go on an on about the cast of this film, which also includes a picture-perfect incarnation of Joe (Chris Cooper) and a delightful, aging-hippy Mrs. Dinsmore (Anne Bancroft) standing in for Dickens' Miss Havisham.

From the Page to the Screen
But what of the film's relationship to its Victorian progenitor? How does the essential tale stand up to being shorn of half its cast of characters, its sooty London locale, and the host of side stories and diversions Dickens' furnished us with? (As people love to complain, Dickens was paid by the word :) )

Well, there are two main differences that come to mind, one wholly acceptable and one less so. Firstly, in the film Estella is not quite the ice queen of Dickens' imagining. Indeed, she does more than her part to arouse Fin's interest and fire his blood, making his infatuation with her all the more understandable. Now it might seem that this dismisses the central tension of the novel, but actually it is a wise reworking of the premise by filmmakers who know that the great stuff of literature does not necessarily directly translate into great stuff on screen. In this case, Cuaron and his crew need to foster the viewer's attachment to both Fin and Estella and their relationship, so that we will care about their fates despite having known them for such a short time (two hours vs ~400 pages). Bottom line, it works.

The second major alteration, and the one that I am not as comfortable with, is the revision of Fin's/Pip's ultimate fate - I warn you to stop here if you do not wish to encounter any spoilers. In Dickens' Expectations, Pip loses his great fortune and fall from all expectations, ending up working a nine-to-five job (so to speak) and living a normal middle-class life. Not so Fin, who ends the film firmly possessed of "portable property," which means to say that he is very very rich - as heartbroken as Pip, but rich nonetheless. Now Fin's ending is in keeping with his character throughout, which is generally even-tempered, kind, and unassuming vs Pip's decent into a spendthrift, snobby, overbearing, boorish, frat boy of the novel, and perhaps it can be justified as stripping out Dickens' moralizing message and focusing on the essentials of the story. Nonetheless, it hit me like a curve ball.

I don't mean to impugn Cuaron's beautiful and lovingly crafted film with this dissent, as I am aware that this is a re-imagining of Great Expectations, and that the main character is renamed expressly to distance him from his inspiration. Overall I think that the spirit of Dickens' novel was admirably captured in Cuaron's film, and highly recommend it for Paltrow's stunning beauty in her early scenes if for no other reason ;)

1 comment:

Colleen said...

Oooh, Adoration sounds really good - I'll see if it's playing here.