Machinelike but human
In 1998, Atom Egoyan almost got an Oscar for killing off a busload of schoolchildren. You may think that’s a terrible thing to get an Oscar for, and maybe it is, but the reason he didn’t is that the award went instead to James Cameron that year, for killing off a boatload of North Atlantic seafarers. Timing!
Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, which he adapted from Russell Banks’ novel, may have lacked Titanic’s transfixing mass appeal, but it did introduce American art-house crowds to an obscure Armenian-Canadian filmmaker whose mindful, marginal perspective on grieving lost life and innocence soon would become highly topical. So if Egoyan’s Adoration, from an original script, now seems late to the table of movies about life in the wake of 9/11, well, maybe timing’s just another aesthetic choice. After all, that wake is long and deep.
Like other Egoyan films, Adoration concerns itself with the technology of human communication, which includes memory, imagination, the Internet, prejudice, fiction, symbols, videography, mass murder, journalism, guilt, religious rituals and high-school language education. It takes place within what one character calls a “community of people who remember a catastrophe that never happened.”
Paradoxically, that chimerical event is the part of this story that’s true—the part about a Jordanian jihadist who in 1986 tried to put his Irish girlfriend on a plane from London to Tel Aviv after putting a bomb in her luggage. The plan was to kill about 400 people, including the young woman and her unborn child. It didn’t succeed, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t shake people up.
For instance, when Simon (Devon Bostick), a Toronto high-school student, gets an assignment from his teacher, Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian), to translate an old newspaper article about this incident, he decides to let himself and his class think it’s the story of his own deceased parents. Abetted by his own speculated flashbacks, Simon writes an essay ruminating on martyrdom, moral responsibility, his father’s motives and how we all are haunted by the past.
As it happens, Sabine is a teacher not just of French but also of drama, and she encourages Simon’s fabrication. Her special interest seems peculiar, but there is the compelling sense of unsettled fate beginning to cohere. Simon’s performance eventually becomes an incendiary viral sensation on the Web, sparking rancorous commentary from his classmates, their parents, passengers from that fateful flight, and even survivors and deniers of the Holocaust.
This all proves especially challenging for Simon’s uncle Tom (Scott Speedman), an exhausted de facto guardian embittered not just by his sister’s death but also by a strained relationship with his own father (Kenneth Welsh), whose inclinations toward bigotry he may reluctantly have inherited. Whether any of them like it or not, Simon and Sabine’s increasingly consuming collaboration will prompt several revelations and test his uncle’s tolerance.
And, OK, ours. As coincidences accumulate, and the filmmaker’s orderliness crosses over into stiltedness, it becomes clear that the way through all this confusion toward closure will just have to be halting and circuitous. Besides, storytelling contrivance is part of what’s being examined here.
Adoration, like other Egoyan films, might rightly be described as machinelike, with its own gear works rather coyly exposed, but at least its power seems to come from striving, reeling human souls. Probably knowing full well that their characters will irk and compel in roughly equal measure, the principal actors—Bostick, Khanjian (Egoyan’s wife and frequent leading lady) and especially Speedman—make many brave and naturally audacious choices. Their implied faith in Egoyan’s earnest approach, like his faith in its potential for profundity, is touching. And of course all the arty brooding is well-served by Paul Sarossy’s cinematography and Mychael Danna’s score.
So what’s it like to be a failed terrorist’s son, anyway? Is it ever something worth fantasizing about? Is it like a stifling dream, in which nonevents become events and catastrophes, even without actually happening, create communities? You may think these aren’t pressing questions, and maybe they’re not, but neither was the question of what happened on the last days of the Titanic when people kept asking it as least as late as 1998.