December 30, 2007


This time, I'm walking the plank Oscar-style.

Grade: B +
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Brenda Blethyn, and Vanessa Redgrave
Rating: R

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

As the annual, awards-season serving of British Drawing-Room Drama™, Joe Wright’s Atonement is a burnished, largely gorgeous literary adaptation that, like No Country for Old Men, is a superb exemplar of the technical craft of filmmaking overshadowing the importance of a sound, seamless narrative underpinning.

Admittedly, condensing Ian McEwan’s acclaimed, complex novel for the screen is no small task, one assigned to the quill of Christopher Hampton, who previously adapted screenplays for Dangerous Liaisons and The Quiet American. The structure of McEwan’s four-part narrative remains, beginning with the marvelous exposition given to the vital opening act set during 1935 at the bucolic Tallis family country estate.

It is then and there that the story is set in motion, when young Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a budding writer and vaguely eerie pre-teen, witnesses, with crucially limited comprehension, the awkward dalliance between Cecilia (Keira Knightley), her older sister, and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s housekeeper. Briony’s grasp of their byplay is colored by both her restricted vantage-point and her latent attraction for Robbie, one of many subtexts – including an Upstairs-Downstairs cultural divide – that get washed away in the wake of McEwan/Hampton’s hydra-headed storyline.

More misperceptions and misunderstandings follow, fueled by Briony first reading a saucy note Robbie inadvertently sends to Cecilia and later stumbling across their ensuing coitus in the family’s library. The stage is thus is set when the jealous, confused Briony falsely accuses Robbie of raping her young cousin, who is also staying in the household. Robbie is subsequently disgraced and imprisoned, but even worse, from the viewpoint of the romantic movie universe, the star-crossed lovers are forcibly separated.

What keeps Atonement afloat, besides some fine performances from McAvoy and Knightley, is Wright’s creative camerawork and sublime attention to detail. Wright paints a captivating canvas throughout the first act, balancing a time-jumping narrative with sumptuous photography. Having now thrice directed Knightley—together with Pride & Prejudice and her current television commercial for Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle perfume—Wright so lavishly photographs his muse that the mere act of removing her foot from a shoe in anticipation of lovemaking is transformed into a display that is both titillating and exquisite (in interviews, Knightley reveals that Wright actually storyboarded the moment).

Wright’s artistry reaches its zenith at the start of act two with a five-minute-plus Steadicam shot across France’s Dunkirk beach circa 1940, the jumping-off point for retreating British soldiers waiting to be rescued from the German Blitzkrieg. The sequence is not only a grand mise en scène—comprising 1,000 extras and assorted ship mockups, vehicles and horses—but deftly traverses the many faces of war’s dismal circus: death, heroism, depravity, patriotism and chaos.

Unfortunately, this meticulously executed scene is also a pivot point for the narrative’s slide into banality and strained import. While part one is a portrait of atmosphere and character development, the rest of the film feels compressed and predictable, replete with de rigueur regrets and recriminations. The film’s middle acts dramatize the reunion of Cecilia and Robbie, who enlists with the British Army in exchange for his early release from prison. We also encounter an 18-year-old Briony (now played by Romola Garai), who works as a nurse in London, performing hard, gruesome labor—less out of patriotic duty, we sense, than to atone for the wrong she inflicted upon Robbie and her sister.

It is the final act, however, where Atonement reaches highest yet falls shortest. In McEwan’s book, this fourth part, written from the perspective of an older Briony in 1999, is the most audacious. It elucidates the often porous barrier separating fiction and reality, existing in both the hands of an artist and the minds of the audience, which forces the reader to confront the same perils of perception that beset young Briony.

Wright missteps (undoubtedly due to length and budgetary considerations) by altering the novel’s narrative frame – a family reunion in the present-day Briony’s honor – to a nondescript television sound stage where Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), now a successful novelist in her 70s, is being interviewed about her latest book. The milieu feels detached from the rest of the story, as does Redgrave’s charismatic, erudite elocution from Briony’s earlier muted, even obtuse personas.

The artist’s battle with the creative process and the balancing act between reality and fantasy have been tackled onscreen often and recently with more aplomb (Swimming Pool) and originality (Adaptation; Stranger Than Fiction). Atonement’s epilogue comes off more as an afterthought, a footnote to the Brit-lit period piece it yearns to preserve… at least until the end of Oscar season.

Neil Morris

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