Atonement, directed by Joe Wright, is an adaptation from the Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel of the same name. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars including Best Picture. Beautifully shot and very ambitious in trying to adapt a complex novel onto the silver screen, the movie does a lot of things right but has some occasional misfiring that prevent it from being a truly great film. I knew absolutely nothing about the novel when I walked into this so I had no preconceived expectations for the film.
A story about regret and life-long sorrow, the film begins in 1935 England and revolves around three characters as the world is on the brink of World War II. Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is the older sister of a wealthy aristocratic family who can’t quite decide what to make of her relationship with Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s servant. Despite his decidedly non-aristocratic upbringing, he is a well-educated young man she grew up with and who was able to attend Oxford University thanks to her father’s generousness. It should come to no surprise that the two become the star-crossed lovers of the story. The central character, however, is Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan in 1935), a 13-yr old self-serious aspiring writer with an effusive and twisted imagination. One day, she witnesses something out her window that will change the lives of the three characters forever. Misinterpreting what she sees, she begins to vilify Robbie in her young mind and one day, she wrongfully but adamantly accuses him of sexually molesting one of her cousins. Robbie is sent to prison for years until he volunteers for front line duties in France as World War II is about to plunge the world in darkness. Will our two lovebirds reunite?
The first 45 minutes are spent building up the circumstances of the story in England but the story suddenly shifts gears with Robbie trying to escape France and the German advance. Unfortunately, this is where the movie starts to slack. Wright tries to compensate with somewhat confusing non-linear time line editing and technically masterful set pieces. With a running time of over two hours, Atonement spends a lot of time in visual contemplations and Wright delivers stunning visuals throughout the movie. The visual highlight of the film is the nearly completely aimless one-take tracking shot of the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940 that lasts more than 5 full minutes and will probably remain one of the greatest technical feats in film making for the decades to come. Unfortunately, that amazing sequence also saps the movie from its momentum and the film never recovers enough until the epilogue where revelations are made.
James McAvoy is astounding as Robbie Turner and he showed there that he is one of the very best actor of his generation. He has an amiable gentle face that helps you sympathize with the longing and melancholy of his character. The three actresses that play Briony are all equally outstanding from young Saoirse Ronan, who is a revelation, to Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave. Keira Knightley, approaching near-anorexic level of thinness, is solid although she doesn’t get to shine as her character is somewhat secondary in importance in the movie and disappears for long stretches in the second half. There is a certain haughtiness that she wonderfully flaunts thanks in part to a aristocratic English accent that is nearly completely foreign to us Americans. The score by Dario Marianelli, which won the score for Best Original Score is a feast for the ears, often keying on one-note beats, such as the sound of a typewriter, to create a sense of tension.
By far, the most problematic aspect of Atonement is that it tries so hard to make us believe there is an epic love story between Cecilia and Robbie. However, we only get a few glimpses of the two barely sharing any kind of intimacy or chemistry in the first third of the movie. Hence, it is quite a stretch to believe that the two are really madly in love and “destined” for each other after their abrupt and lengthy separation. For all the flaws and fluffiness of The Notebook for example, that movie did an excellent job of building up the central romance. Had Atonement been less economical in showing Cecilia and Robbie falling in love, I truly believe this would have been a masterpiece of a romantic tragedy. I really thought this blunted the emotional punch of the epilogue, which also shockingly clarifies the title of the film. The older Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave, reveals the truth about the story and forces us to reevaluate everything that we just saw. This all comes as a punch in the guts (if you haven’t read the novel too) but it feels overly manipulative as it plays with our expectations.
Overly ambitious, Atonement is an uneven movie featuring downright superb acting and stunningly beautiful cinematography but the insufficiently developed central romance and disorientating editing blunt the emotional impact of the story. I was quite shocked and frustrated at how unromantic this movie was.
Lesson of the Day: Childish misunderstandings can have life-altering consequences.
Notes: Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, directed by Joe Wright, written by Christopher Hampton, music by Dario Marianelli, distributed by Focus Features. Rated R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality. 123 min.