Atonement is many familiar films all rolled into one: the war-time epic, the good old-fashioned throwback replete with star-crossed lovers torn apart by circumstances beyond anyone’s control, and the classy, Oscar-bait period British literary adaptation.
Another interpretation is that the film functions as a clever character study of its most consistent (and fascinating) character, Briony Tallis (played, at various ages by Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave and the Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan). Whenever the story focuses on this character’s sweeping dramatic arc, charting the genesis of a fledgling writer’s imagination, her coming of age, and her eventual fate, the film succeeds. In focusing on the blurry love story (sans chemistry between the two leads), Atonement is but a pretty, vacant postcard.
There are so many perspectives to be considered in this film, that it might be said director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) had one too many cooks in the English country estate’s proverbial kitchen.
All of the big ideas contained within the film’s epic sprawl begin, unassumingly, at the Eden-like manor owned by the filthy rich, aristocratic Tallis family (the manse is an epic character in itself here, with brilliant art direction). Beautifully filmed by Seamus McGarvey, Atonement’s main action revolves around a disastrous, misguided act of treachery perpetrated by the young authoress, as her first “play” is being readied for a command performance after a family dinner. The misconceptions of the naïve 13-year-old Briony (Ronan) lead her and those around her into a destiny even more unsavory than the looming war.
Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is the eldest Tallis daughter, and she seems incredibly resentful that her kind father has taken the housekeeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy) under his wing and put him through school. Even though Robbie and Cecilia are trying to extinguish their lust for one another, there is something that binds them together. She is keen to put up barriers between herself and Robbie, perhaps because of their class disparity, perhaps because she actually loves him.
As the evening progresses, things get a bit hysterical at the Tallis estate. Briony intercepts a playfully sexual note written by Robbie, meant for her sister Cecilia. The discovery of the incendiary correspondence sets into motion a chain of events and misunderstandings that will forever change the lives of every character in the film. Cecilia and Robbie give in to their passions, Cousin Lola (Juno Temple) levels a charge at a phantom assailant, and Briony lurks in the shadows, coolly observing it all.
After a series of sexual panics and the mysterious disappearance of two cousins, Briony accuses Robbie of sexual misconduct with more than one Tallis woman. With the “evidence” hot in hand, she insists to authorities and to her family that he is a sexual deviant who must be locked up. Even though he is innocent of the charges, Robbie was born into service, so his word against Briony’s becomes negligible.
So, the child’s destructive imagination sends Robbie off to prison, and, as the war begins, he is given a choice: join the army or stay in jail. He chooses to fight.
As act two obliquely begins, we see that Cecilia and Briony (now 19 and played by Garai) are employed as nurses in different ramshackle London hospitals, and estranged from one another. The war is in full, bloody swing and the posh lifestyle once enjoyed at their idyllic country home has been shattered. The harsh reality of war, as well as regret over what happened six years ago, is tearing the women apart.
The recreation of war-time London is stunning, and as in Pride and Prejudice, Wright’s flair for visual storytelling is assured. Also, just like in his debut film, he is paired with Knightley. Radiant in the adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic (for which she was deservedly nominated for the Oscar), Knightley’s vacant, mannequin-esque staring and wispy posturing stands in for character development here, while too-eager pouting subs for more complex emoting.
Knightley’s chemistry with McAvoy is essential to make the film’s romantic clinches feel real, and while both actors are young and good-looking, something still feels very artificial when they are together, like they are performing in different films. Knightley steals a page from the Cold Mountain-era Nicole Kidman playbook with her verbatim, ill-delivered “come back to me” refrain. McAvoy (following up 06’s Last King of Scotland), steps into the romantic leading man mold fairly effortlessly, enjoying the privilege of getting to star in the film’s most audacious sequence: the stunning recreation of war-ravaged Dunkirk Beach. Wright chooses to use a single tracking shot to convey the carnage in this brilliantly choreographed set piece.
Other than the visual bombast, the main reason to see Atonement is to get the rare chance to see a female character age from her teens into her senior years, courtesy of three different women, who all curiously manage to have the exact same hair style for 50 years. Briony Tallis is the most interesting of all of the film’s characters and each actress gets a chance to excitingly fill in the blanks.
Ronan is clearly one of the most talented young actresses of her generation (for further proof, check out the recently-released Amy Heckerling-Michelle Pfeiffer collaboration I Could Never Be Your Woman), but few of her charms comes across here. A deleted scene gives the actress (and the viewer) to see Briony as more fleshed out and human and it’s curious that Wright scrapped it in the first place. It is an un-showy turn, and the actress wisely underplays the young Briony, who could have easily been turned into a little shrew.
Garai’s Briony is devastated by her past mistakes as she cares for the mortally wounded soldiers that litter her hospital. Seeing the folly of her actions as a child, Briony desperately tries to transition into womanhood under horrifying conditions, and she figures the first thing to do is to set things right with Cecilia and Robbie, who are less than happy to see her again. It is her intent to “atone” for these past indiscretions that propels the film towards its shattering, jarring conclusion.
It is not until we meet the elderly Briony in Atonement’s scathing finale that the truth is finally revealed. Redgrave’s commanding presence in this extended cameo lends weight to the filmmaker’s decision to wrap everything up so neatly. In the end, the film becomes the story of a misguided child spending her whole adult life trying to write a happy ending where life has taken over with more sinister intentions. When Redgrave lets her tale unfold it doesn’t feel like a manipulation, even though it strikes with lightning quick speed.
Atonement is basically about perception and misconception. As the audience we are expected to believe what we have been told up until the third act, when the rug is pulled quickly from beneath our feet. Our perception of all of the characters is rendered invalid because we are told that certain liberties must always be taken with what is often mislabeled “truth”.
The tinkering with the narrative and the “truth” plays in a choppy way, and the rhythm of the film suffers because of it, even though Wright’s stylistic flair buoys most of the proceedings. The visual language the director creates is more interesting than everything else in Atonement, but then, a barrage of gorgeous images don’t really make for a fully engaging film-going experience. It will be interesting to see Wright’s next move. With the recent passing of Anthony Minghella (who has a cameo here), the director seems to be his heir apparent, sharing in the veteran’s lush, romantic sensibilities. Hopefully whatever he does next, though, will be without lame duck Knightley.
On DVD, Atonement becomes episodic and loses much of its emotional heft, but is still highly entertaining. The small screen diminishes some of the awesome visual power that it wielded on a big screen. When the film premiered in Toronto last year, I saw it with about a thousand other excited film fans in a gilded art deco theater, on a giant screen with booming sound. It was an event. Minus the festival trappings, in my modest living room, it became something much more generic.
The film is far from a failure, but it is one of the most over-hyped of 07’s awards season; a simple melodrama combined with David Lean-size epic landscapes, crossed with a spicy dash of Merchant Ivory, equals this Academy-friendly retread of about a thousand other, better films.