In the annals of romantic dramas, Atonement marks itself as an exceptional and exquisite film. While the technical aspects (editing, cinematography, production design, etc…) may appeal more to audiences than the story, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That is not to say that the story isn’t involving, most of it is. However, it would be easy to recommend the picture solely on the fastidious pastiche Joe Wright’s crew has put on display for us. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, Wright successfully adapts what is said to be a non-filmable book.
The story, set in 1935 England, centers around an imbroglio in which Robbie (James McAvoy, Becoming Jane) is falsely accused of raping a young girl. Robbie is a yeoman who works in the gardens of the house owned by the Tallis family. He has been longtime friends with Cecilia (Kiera Knightley, who starred in Wright’s first film, Pride and Prejudice), the oldest daughter. The two are in love but remain emotionally distant from each other until the point, which comes at a dinner party, when the unbearableness sets in and they embrace each other. Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), happens to walk in on the moment and, because of a secret letter she wasn’t supposed to read that makes Robbie look like a lecherous individual, she thinks Robbie is raping her sister.
That’s not the big issue though. Later, as the family is wandering about the grounds searching for Briony’s runaway cousins, she comes across the shocking sight of her cousin Lola being raped by a man she assumes is Robbie. Her testimony proves to be the only evidence in the case and Robbie is eventually sent to prison. He is given a choice four years later: to stay in prison or join the British army. During that time, he must deal with the horrors of war, the pique of the false accusation, and the tantalizing yearning to be with his lover Cecilia, who is at that point working as a nurse.
If there is one flaw to Atonement it is that it takes a little too long for the film to gain its momentum. The first act is plodded and features an overzealous music score. Here it seems that Wright is desperately trying to keep the audience’s attention. On the plus side though, the dialogue is fluent and the characters are easily and well developed. The second half, on the other hand, is breathtaking and the movie starts to flex it’s Oscar muscles. The middle of the film is a compendium of WWII scenes in which our two romantics are placed in; the most unforgettable of which comes when Robbie and his fellow soldiers, who were separated from their unit, come across 30,000 soldiers stranded on a beach waiting for departure from France. To say that the cinematography here by Seamus McGarvey (2006’s World Trade Center) is top-notch would be an understatement. The final fifteen minutes or so feature an elderly Briony, played by a more profound than ever Vanessa Redgrave, coming to terms with the distress she has caused. This is where Atonement is at its unconventional best as several unforeseeable surprises are masterfully revealed to us.
The film is not necessarily about Robbie and Cecilia, but about the wrong committed by Briony and the agony she lives with each day knowing she will never be able to atone for it. This is the element that is, thankfully, explored the most in Atonement. A perfect scene comes via flashback, where Briony, who at the time has a schoolgirl crush on Robbie, falls into a lake purposely to see if Robbie will dive in and save her. It is a scene that reminds us that she is a foolish girl and a girl with a vivid imagination as she is a gifted young writer. Above all, the scene allows us to understand how the imbroglio in which the plot revolves around could happen.
As a director, Wright is a solid story teller, but, as with Pride and Prejudice, his superlative production and period detail skills are ubiquitously on display here. The production design by Sarah Greenwood (who also worked on Pride and Prejudice) is astounding, the editing is nearly seamless and along with McGarvey’s cinematography, it all makes for one gorgeous motion picture. One other technical aspect that warrants discussion is the music score that involves the repeated sound of a typewriter. Some will find it to be annoying, but I have no problem with it. It’s different, which is one thing Atonement identifies itself as in many ways from other movies of its ilk.
The performances by James McAvoy and Kiera Knightley are good, (the former more than the latter) but unfortunately hide beneath all the other qualities I’ve already discussed. As Robbie, McCavoy gives us a fine and profound insight on what it’s like to be stuck in prison, or a war, and to be so far away from the one he loves. As Cecilia, Knightley spends much of her time resenting her sister and with the exception of one scene, the two aren’t seen onscreen together after the first act. As the 13-year old Briony, Saoirse Ronan proves to be a very capable young actress. As the 18-year old Briony, who is at the time a nurse just like her sister, Romola Garai (Amazing Grace) receives the most dramatically climatic scenes and does a fine job of handling them. Finally, Vanessa Redgrave, as the wizened Briony sends the film off on an impressive high-note.
And so we have a rich and ravishing film with complex characters, especially that of Briony, that stumbles a bit out of the gates but will leave audiences in awe of it’s beauty and more than satisfied and maybe a little teary-eyed by the indelible conclusion, which, to great effect, reminds us that it is much better to leave things unsettled and not like the characters themselves want them to be nor like we expect them to be. Wright has by no means hit a sophomore slump. In fact, he as actually made a better film than his first because his scope and vision as a director is wider and his storyline, unlike Pride and Prejudice, isn’t confined to the almost unobtainable love between the two main characters.