3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
It was right there in front of me. A straight line as easy to mock as Jaime Lynn Spears selling birth control. “Atonement.” I was sure after one listen I could open with the line, “Composer Dario Marianelli and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet need to atone for their sins...”
The only problem with a ready-made gag is sometimes the joke’s on you. You may not see God while listening to “Atonement” (or even see Jerry Garcia), but the music will touch your heart and soul.
I’m sure you’re familiar with two of my most rigid rules of music from the Singer’s Handbook: 1) No medleys, and 2) With the exception of Jeff Beck and Deodato, no instrumental albums. Somebody has to step up to the mike and warble a few notes. “Atonement” is so well constructed and orchestrated that I’m considering a third amendment – 3) Select movie soundtracks are okay.
Movie critics are calling “Atonement” one of the greatest romances of all time. Apparently the Golden Globes Nominating Committee agrees – it’s been nominated for seven awards. The soundtrack for “Atonement” demonstrates that behind every classic film is an equally dynamic soundtrack.
The plot revolves around a young would-be writer who ruins the life of her sister’s boyfriend by accusing him of a crime he didn’t commit. The girl remains guilt-ridden throughout her life and tries to set the record straight in her latest novel months before her own death. The soundtrack reflects the guilt felt by the girl and the hopelessness of her sister’s doomed love affair.
“Briony,” the brief opening piece, begins with the sound of someone tapping frantically on a typewriter, a continuing theme from start to finish. Commenting on Marianelli’s music in the soundtrack’s liner notes, director Joe Wright and producer Paul Webster wrote: “Dario Marianelli collaborated before filming and “Briony” emerged; a single plangent piano note developing into a beautiful melody underpinned by a percussive typewriter (circa 1935). It was an ingenious musical summary of the story’s preoccupations.” The typewriter is a prop associated with the main character. As a writer it’s her most essential tool. But it’s also the source of her guilt. Her sister’s boyfriend typed the letter she delivered to her sister that set the entire series of unfortunate events in motion.
“Farewell” furthers the characters sense of guilt and dejection, as Thibaudet taps out single notes on the keys. (More plangency!) Sad cellos, Thibaudet’s drifting piano and a forlorn oboe blend together with the orchestra and a lonesome prairie harmonica that blows with desperation. Thibaudet and the English Chamber Orchestra have fused their styles together on a sensory level few musicians ever achieve. You may have heard the expression, “painting pictures with music.” With “Farewell,” Thibaudet and company create their own Mona Lisa.
If you weren’t already aware of the typewriter’s importance as a plot device, “With My Own Eyes” hammers it home. “Eyes” features another appearance by our mystery typist – this time banging out a letter in near syncopated time! The sad theme would be even more effective if Marianelli didn’t try to use the typewriter as a timekeeper, a function it’s not really designed for. Every piece of music thus far has been very intense, but bringing back the typist hurriedly tapping on the keys like Machine Gun Jack McGurn playing chin music with a Thompson undercuts the gravity of the subject.
“Love Letters” begins with a Thibaudet piano run Van Cliburn would be proud of, matched against a crying oboe. More formal than the rest of the selections, “Love Letters” is very much for the tuxedo/Masterpiece Theater crowd. It turns into the type of traditional classical music John Williams (the proper English actor, not the composer) used to hawk on TV. (Williams was the spokesman for the longest running TV commercial in U.S. history (15 years). Even after he died, you could still see him saying, “I’m sure you recognize this lovely melody as ‘Stranger in Paradise.” But did you know that the original theme is from the ‘Polevetsian Dance No. 2’ by Borodin? Of course none of the party veterans tuning in a dead man at 2 a.m. ever did.)
“Rescue Me” isn’t an orchestrated take on the Fontella Bass R & B hit, but more misty, moody music for the lovelorn. The vulnerable oboe is back, embraced by swirling strings. You may have heard the melody before, (in an earlier composition, “Farewell”), but it’s still compelling. Thibaudet’s haunting piano and Caroline Dale’s cheerless cello balance out the orchestra’s heady dramatics.
The shivering strings of the English Chamber Orchestra capture the defeat and suffering of the beaten British Army in “Elegy For Dunkirk.” You can visualize the mud, blood, fear, and death. A chorus sings a ghostly rallying cry in the background; but the intense strings beat back their cries, recreating the chaotic atmosphere of the retreating soldiers. (Apparently the scenes at Dunkirk are among the movie’s most visually stunning images. The five minute tracking shot employed over 1,000 extras and had to be completed before the tide came in. Marianelli’s remarkable “Elegy” is a fitting musical backdrop for one of Britain’s most ignominious defeats.)
The ghostly chorus returns to sing “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover,” to the battered wail of an oboe, perpetuating a sense of loss in “Come Back.” The annoying tick-tack of the typewriter returns to remind us that the main character is atoning for her sin by telling the story of her sister’s broken love affair. For the sake of the sad beauty of the soundtrack, the attempt to make the typewriter keys match the music should have been punched out after “Briony.” The German avant-garde rockers Can tried to make a typewriter part of their stage act to no avail years ago…The same effect in “Come Back” is no can do as well. “Come Back” is punctuated by a colossal church organs solo theatrical enough for the entrance of The Pope. There are a variety of stylistic changes that will stir the emotions and elicit a moistening of the tear ducts. More importantly, if you’ve seen “Atonement,” this striking piece of elegant despair will immediately flood your mind with images from the movie – and that’s what an effective sound track is supposed to do.
The soundtrack ends with the only “cover” tune, a rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” (Where’s John Williams with the intro?) The track gives Thibaudet a chance to show what a light-handed piano prince he is. He doesn’t merely play the piano, he turn it into a ray of hope that floats through your imagination like a cloud.
The music works more as a single piece and will certainly have much more effect when combined with Joe Wright’s dramatic cinematic imagery. A lot of the compositions are unabashedly similar – the formula is often piano + woodwinds + heart wrenching strings = tears. It may have been better if Jean-Yves Thibaudet and company lumped the music into one suite, and called it “Atonement,” rather than siphoning it off into bits and pieces. The subtleties of some of the compositions are lost on me, but the tragedy of war and the mood-setting strings are not. This is sad, beautiful music, expertly played, that sets the tone for one of this year’s best films.