Perception and Misconception in Joe Wright’s ‘Atonement’

The misconceptions of Atonement‘s naïve young protagonist lead her into a destiny more unsavory than the looming war. The audience’s perception is even harsher.

Joe Wright’s romance and mystery, 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 Atonement 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). The film succeeds 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. 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 Wright (Pride and Prejudice) had one too many cooks in the English country estate’s proverbial kitchen. All of the big ideas 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 author 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 loves him.

As the evening progresses, things become 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 Atonement. 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 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 Atonement‘s 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 Atonement‘s romantic clinchés feel real. While both actors are young and good-looking, something still seems artificial when they are together, as if 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 2006’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 have the exact same hairstyle for 50 years. Briony Tallis is the most interesting of the film’s characters, and each actress gets to fill in the blanks excitingly.

Ronan is one of her generation’s most talented young actresses (for further proof, check out the recently released Amy Heckerling-Michelle Pfeiffer collaboration I Could Never Be Your Woman). Still, few of her charms come across here. A deleted scene gives the actress (and the viewer) the chance to see Briony as more fleshed out and human, and it’s curious that Wright scrapped it. The performance is an un-showy turn, and the actress wisely underplays the young Briony, who could have easily become a little shrew.

Garai’s Briony is devastated by her past mistakes as she cares for the mortally wounded soldiers that fill 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. Her intent to “atone” for these past indiscretions propels the film toward its shattering, jarring conclusion.

It is not until we meet the elderly Briony in Atonement’s scathing finalé that the truth is finally revealed. Redgrave’s commanding presence in this extended cameo lends weight to the filmmaker’s decision to wrap everything neatly. In the end, the film becomes the story of a misguided child spending her adult life trying to write a happy ending where life has taken over with more sinister intentions. When Redgrave lets her character’s 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 until the third act when the rug is pulled quickly from beneath our feet. Our perception of the characters is rendered invalid because we are told that certain liberties must always be taken with what is often mislabeled the “truth”.

The tinkering with the narrative and the story’s “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 director’s visual language is more interesting than everything else in Atonement, but a barrage of gorgeous images doesn’t make for a fully engaging film-going experience. It will be interesting to see Wright’s next move. With the recent passing of director Anthony Minghella (who has a cameo here), Wright seems to be his heir apparent, sharing in the veteran’s lush, romantic sensibilities. Hopefully, whatever he does next 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 its awesome visual power 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 technology. It was an event. Minus the festival trappings, watching Atonement on the television in my modest living room became something more generic.

The film is far from a failure, but it is one of the most over-hyped of 2007’s awards season. It’s a simple melodrama combined with David Lean-size epic landscapes, crossed with a spicy dash of Merchant Ivory. That Academy-friendly recipe can be found in a thousand other, better films.

RATING 6 / 10