by Roderick Conway Morris

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Chan Kam Chuen/Focus Features
Tang Wei, left, and Tony Leung in Ang Lee's 'Se, jie.'

Love and Lust in Wartime

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 30 August 2007


Atonement Directed by Joe Wright (Britain)

Lust, Caution Directed by Ang Lee (U.S.)

The two films selected for the gala showings on the first two nights of the Venice International Film Festival seemed at first glance to have certain things in common.

Both stories begin in the 1930s and continue into the period of World War II. Both have (in theory) a strong 'love interest,' and are adapted from fiction: Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' and Eileen Chang's 'Se, jie' (Lust, Caution). Both directors have made commercially successful adaptations of Jane Austen books: Joe Wright of 'Pride and Prejudice,' Ang Lee of 'Sense and Sensibility.'

'Atonement' begins in 1935, in a classic English country house, the location of which was chosen, according to the director, from the pages of an old copy of that classic English monthly 'Country Life.' War is looming, but not very large, in this rustic paradise. But a serpent lurks within in the form of sisterly rivalry between the daughters of the house, grown-up Cecilia and schoolgirl Briony. Cecilia is in love (although she doesn't know this yet) with Robbie, the son of the housekeeper, who won a scholarship to a grammar school and graduated from Cambridge but is now back gardening at the house.

Briony, an aspiring writer who has just finished her first play, is madly jealous. Without giving away too much: a crime is committed, Robbie is accused and goes to prison, but is released on the eve of the war on the condition that he join the army.

When we next encounter Robbie, he is making his way across the country to Dunkirk after the Germans have overrun the British forces, and Cecilia is working as a nurse in a London hospital, soon to be followed in this vocation by her guilt-ridden sister, Briony.

Keira Knightley, who starred in Wright's 'Pride and Prejudice,' was originally offered the part of Briony, but opted instead to play Cecilia. Briony is played as a child by Saoirse Ronan, as a young nurse by Romola Garai, and in old age by Vanessa Redgrave. Ronan is monstrously good as the 13-year-old Briony and Garai is convincingly tortured as her 18-year-old incarnation. Redgrave does her sterling stuff to round off the story, but in what is virtually a cameo role.

James McAvoy, still fresh from his recent critical triumphs, notably 'The Last King of Scotland,' is assured and direct throughout. The supporting cast are excellent, Wright's direction creative without being obtrusive.

Essentially, 'Atonement' is a two-to-three hanky weepy. This first-class film team energetically carries forward a drama that is plot-wise often rather contrived: letters ending up in the wrong envelope; the word of a highly imaginative schoolgirl being taken unquestioned over that of a highly educated man and so on. There are a lot of typewriters around, at a time when, unlike in America, even most journalists and writers were still writing in long-hand. But Wright makes clever use of these dangerous machines as a filmic device, so it would be churlish not to allow him this poetic license.

Period detail is almost obsessively lingered over in Ang Lee's much slower-moving 'Lust, Caution,' but rather than being decorative and often pleasing as it is in 'Atonement,' this only seems to add to the pervading sense of menace and utter brutality lurking beneath polished surfaces.

Wong Chai Chi (Tang Wei) is a shy young student who finds herself in Hong Kong after her father has fled the Japanese onslaught and gone to England. By chance she finds herself recruited to a student acting group that is putting on a stirring patriotic play to raise funds for the national struggle against the invaders. She discovers to her own and everybody else's surprise that she is a brilliant natural actor.

The student acting group transforms itself into an amateurish resistance cell, with the aim of trying to assassinate a notorious collaborator with the Japanese, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). The now immaculately groomed Mrs. Mak, as Wong Chai Chi has now become, is to be the bait to entice him away from his closely guarded existence. The initial attempts to trap Yee fail before he is transferred to Shanghai. But three years later, the comrades revive their plan to remove Yee, who has by now been responsible for countless deaths, from the scene.

The cat-and-mouse game that ensues between 'Mrs. Mak' and Yee gradually builds to a sinister climax. There are some explicit sex scenes devoid of eroticism. As the heroes are on the side of the revolutionaries who eventually came to power after the war, the Taiwanese-born Lee should be in no danger of ruffling any feathers in mainland China. On the other hand, the film is grueling to watch and some audiences may find very little in the way of recognizable 'love' in this supposed 'love story.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024