The Name is Blonde…Atomic Blonde

For years there have been rumblings that it was time for a female to inherit the role of James Bond. 1995’s GoldenEye caused shock for some when Judi Dench took over as M, even though in real life MI-5 already had its first female Director-General, Stella Rimington, since 1992. Dench became one of the best parts of the series for the next 20 years.

We’ve seen a renaissance for the female hero. Wonder Woman has spent the last few months in the top 10 at the box office, and Jodie Whittaker will take over the most iconic role in British Science Fiction as the 14th Doctor. The most compelling characters in the powerhouse “Game of Thrones” are the women, particularly the lethally evil Cersei, her nemesis Daenerys, and the assassin Arya. (They’ve also survived, where most of the men have not.) Daniel Craig remains as 007, but progress has a way of building a better road if the old path is closed. So we have Charlize Theron out-Bonding Bond in the spy thriller Atomic Blonde.

Theron not only stars but produced the film. She’d bought the rights to the graphic novel “The Coldest City” before it was published. Kurt Johnstad, hired to adapt the story, is best known for adapting another graphic novel to the screen: Frank Miller’s 300. Directing duties were given to David Leitch, the former stuntman/actor who helped make John Wick a sleeper hit. In fact, Theron trained with Keanu Reeves, who was preparing for John Wick: Chapter 2. But what helped launch the filming of Blonde was Theron’s visceral performance as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. While Tom Hardy had the title role, the movie revolved around Furiosa at its heart. Theron delivered in the role, and showed she could handle the action.

Rather than use Bond as a template, Blonde’s DNA goes back to the hard-edged spy movies of the 1960s that were a reaction against the camp of 007. Blonde has the blood of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Ipcress File (among others) spilling across the screen. It also has the violent action turned up to eleven, including a ten-minute ballet of bullets and blood that’s cut to look like one continuous shot. The camera twists through 360 degree turns as Theron fights her way down a staircase and out of a building.

The story is set in November 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s told in flashback as MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is debriefed by her superior Eric Gray (Tobey Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), while the head of MI-6, C (James Faulkner), watches through one-way glass. She was sent to Berlin to recover a miniaturized file hidden in a watch that has information about agents around the globe. A Soviet agent took it off a British agent, killing the Brit in the process, but rather than submit it to Moscow, he’s gone rogue and aims to sell the file to the highest bidder.

The mission’s compromised from the moment Broughton steps off her flight to Berlin. Representatives of a KGB arms dealer try to kidnap her at the airport, but she manages to escape and makes contact with the British station chief in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy). Percival covers his spy activities as a black marketer in East Berlin, though it’s an open question as to which job has his loyalties. Also in the mix is a beautiful though inexperienced French agent, Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi officer codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who wants to defect.

The plot of Atomic Blonde is a dizzying trail of double- and triple-crosses. You may find yourself wishing for a score card to help keep track of everything. Boughton is almost constantly in peril, but those who go up against her find themselves to be the ones in danger. With her background in dance, and after working with eight trainers in preparation for the movie, Theron shows herself to be a match for any male action hero. But don’t mistake the physical action for the cartoonish version seen in many films. Leitch shows the physical and emotional drain of the fight sequences. When characters get hit, including Theron’s Boughton, there’s pain to pay, and the audience itself is out of breath by the end.

On the other hand, Theron can out-sex-appeal any secret agent in any movie, which creates an interesting dichotomy to the film. McAvoy is effective as the dissolute Percival so you’re never sure which game he’s playing until close to the climax of the film. It’s good to see Sofia Boutella play a realistic and sympathetic character here, after her Odd Job with legs role in Kingsman: The Secret Service, her heavily-made-up turn in Star Trek Beyond, and of course her mummy-issues with Tom Cruise.

While James Bond remains a bastion of unrepentant paternalism, the old “weakest sex” trope is dying away (albeit slower than it should). I think if Bond and Broughton went up against each other, my money would be on Broughton to walk away the winner.

Still Powerful

I recently watched Atonement again for the first time since I saw it in the theater when it was released in 2007. I’d found it devastatingly powerful the first time I viewed it, and that power was still just as potent nine years after its release.

The movie is based on the award-winning 2001 novel by Ian McEwan. The adaptation by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons, The Quiet American) is remarkably faithful to the book. The one major change is the epilogue to the story, and Hampton improves on the book by making it more suitable for film. The story plays with perceptions and misconceptions, folding back on events to view them from different angles. It’s not exactly the untrustworthy narrator that’s recently gained popularity in books and movies like Gone Girl. If anything, it has some of the blood of Rashomon flowing through its veins.

The first part of the story takes place on a beautiful summer’s day in 1935 at the Tallis country estate in England. The central focus is on the precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis, who wants to be a writer and has prepared a play for her visiting cousins to help her perform after dinner that evening. Briony’s older sister Cecilia is home from Cambridge, as is the housekeeper’s son Robbie, whose way is being paid by the Tallis family. Briony sees what she believes to be an argument take place between Cecilia and Robbie, and later intercepts a note that leads her to believe Robbie is a perverse sex maniac. When Briony’s cousin Lola is attacked that night, Briony denounces Robbie as the attacker and he’s arrested.

The remainder of the film deals with the repercussions from that event. For Robbie they include joining the army as a way out of prison, which finds him in Dunkirk with the retreating British Expeditionary Force in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940. He’d seen Cecilia before he was deployed, and now his focus is to make it back to England for her. Briony is older and wiser now, but testimony against Robbie has caused a complete break with Cecilia. She puts her education on hold to work as a nurse when the war breaks out, though she continues writing. Her great hope, though, is to be reconciled with Cecilia and Robbie.

The excellence of the casting has improved with age. Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy star as the star-crossed lovers. Knightly was well established by this point, having done Bend It Like Beckham five years earlier, followed by Love Actually and Pride and Prejudice. She’d also done the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, finishing it just before Atonement. It likely felt like returning to her roots after the temporary transplant to Hollywood. McAvoy was starting to make a name for himself in films after a decade in British television, including a role in the original English version of “Shameless.” He’d gained notice in 2005’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and then broke out with The Last King of Scotland the next year. There’s a definite, understated chemistry between the two that makes the story work.

The pivotal role is Briony as a child, and here the production lucked out by casting Saoirse Ronan in her first major role. She’s pitch perfect as the too-mature-but-not-mature-enough Briony, and the performance was impressive enough to earn her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She had a couple of missteps on her way to becoming a lead actress with The Lovely Bones and Hanna, two movies that weren’t so much bad as could have been a lot better, and we’ll forget about The Host (as most everyone has by now). With Brooklyn she showed her mature power as a performer, and I look forward to what she will do in the future.

The casting director, Jina Jay, found some excellent actors for supporting roles who’ve continued on giving fine performances. Brenda Blethyn was well known already and had an Oscar nomination for Secrets and Lies. She played Robbie’s servant mother, after having just recently played Kiera Knightly’s mother in Pride and Prejudice. There were three actors who were pretty much unknowns at the time of filming who have gone on to bigger careers. Juno Temple, who played Briony’s cousin Lola, hasn’t made as big a splash as she deserves, despite good work in films such as The Brass Teapot and Horns. A small role as a servant was played by Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones” and was recently in John Wick. But the biggest casting coup was that of candy magnate Paul Marshall, a guess of the Tallises that fateful night, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Atonement was directed by Joe Wright, who’d already worked with Knightly on Pride and Prejudice and would work with both Knightly and Ronan again, on Anna Karenina and Hanna respectively. He carefully moves his camera to capture scenes from different angles, first putting you into Briony’s mind, then changing the view. When Robbie gets to Dunkirk, Wright has his camera flow in one continuous five-minute long take that winds through the confusion and fortitude of the British awaiting rescue on the beach. It’s a tour-de-force shot with a thousand extras that was shot over two days – one day for rehearsal, the other for five takes of which the third was used.

 

It’s a bit of an injustice that Wright wasn’t nominated for a Best Director Oscar, even though he did received nominations for both the Golden Globes and the BAFTA awards. Atonement received a Best Picture nod, and along with Saoirse Ronan’s nomination the picture received seven. It only won one, for Dario Marianelli’s score that incorporates typewriter strokes like drum beats.

In the novel the epilogue is a 1999 letter from Briony as the author of the piece. Hampton changes it to a television interview with her on the occasion of the book’s publication, her 20th novel. Briony is now played by Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s interviewed by the late writer/director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), who passed away the year after Atonement was released. The brief, memorable scene explains the name of the film, and it will stay with you long after you see this magnificent film.