Sweeping romantic drama has nothing to apologize for
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Joe Wright
Cast: Kiera Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai
Atonement presents viewers with the kind of sweeping romance and epic storytelling that hasn’t been seen since the likes of Reds or Doctor Zhivago or Gone with the Wind. (Yes, I consciously left The English Patient off that list--it’s highly overrated.) Admittedly, that’s a mighty bold statement to make. It’s not merely a reflection on the film’s quality, which is impeccable, but a description of the classic cinematic style for which Atonement is reaching. So many modern Hollywood love stories are obsessed with the petty and the miniscule (mistaken identities, ridiculous lies and other formulaic contrivances). When lunkheaded dirty jokes like The Heartbreak Kid pass for romance, we’re in serious need of some old-fashioned affairs of the heart.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan and directed by Joe Wright (2005’s Pride & Prejudice), Atonement is a vivid and enthralling tale of love and betrayal, war and peace, beauty and pain. The story starts in 1935 England. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is desperately trying to keep herself from boredom at her family’s sprawling country estate in Surrey. Surrounded by distant relatives and boorish houseguests, the imaginative young girl entertains herself by penning fantastical stageplays. Briony is more than happy to be lost in a world of her own creation, but she’s shocked back to reality when she witnesses a curious scene between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley, looking radiant in the period) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the handsome son of the estate’s hardworking cook.
Briony has something of a prepubescent crush on Robbie and becomes extremely jealous when she sees what her young eyes tell her is a violent and possibly sexual encounter between Cecilia and Robbie. She is, of course, mistaken. There is something going on between Cecilia and Robbie, but it’s much deeper than Briony realizes. Confused by feelings she isn’t quite old enough to understand, Briony takes a sudden and childish dislike to Robbie. Later that fateful day, Briony’s teenage cousin is attacked and nearly raped by one of the household’s guests. In a fit of confabulation, Briony becomes convinced that Robbie was behind the attack and tells the police just that. “I know he did it,” insists Briony. “Do you know it, or did you see it?” asks a wise police inspector.
During the 1930s, social roles were changing in England. The old “Upstairs, Downstairs” dynamic was dying off. Robbie isn’t just some illiterate son of a housekeeper. He’s college-educated and only working at the estate, saving up money, so he can go to medical school. Still, the testimony of a member of the upper crust (and some other badly misinterpreted evidence) is enough to convict him of sexual assault and send him off to jail.
Five years later, the story picks up. Robbie has been let out of jail on the condition he join the growing war in Europe. His dreams have been crushed, and he’s just another soldier fighting for his life in France. Cecilia, meanwhile, has become a volunteer nurse, helping injured troops in London. Is there any chance these two will reunite? And what about Briony? Is there any way for her to make up for the life-altering injuries her vindictive lie created?
The story of Atonement is a multilayered one, rich in the same morality, emotion and metaphysical depth with which McEwan furnished his novel. The narrative takes occasional stutter-steps backward to replay scenes that were hidden or viewed only through the eyes of other characters. Thanks to this frequent backpedalling device, we see things as they really are--often far more complex or significant than we thought at first glance. Wright turns his screen into a rich visual frame, commensurate with the weighty story at hand. A five-minute, single-take shot sweeping the entire post-invasion beach at Dunkirk, for example, rates as one of the film’s most memorable masterstrokes.
If Atonement has any weak spots, they’ve been nicely wallpapered and are virtually invisible in the final product. The acting is flawless, with Knightley turning in her best on-screen effort, McAvoy proving The Last King of Scotland was no fluke and Ronan impressing with a well-nuanced performance. Given the strength of Ronan’s delivery, in fact, it’s almost a shame to see her disappear for much of the film only to be replaced by Romola Garai (Amazing Grace) in later reels. Still, all involved manage to walk a steady line between passionate realism and a self-conscious evocation of the starry cinematic melodramas of yesteryear.
The film’s cinematography--glowing and summery in the early scenes, dark and wintry in the later--is appropriately ravishing. Notable also is the film’s score by Dario Marianelli, which features the incessant staccato keys of Briony’s typewriter as a percussion instrument. That constant clicking sound never lets us forget what gave birth to this tragic story. The power of imagination, viewed so positively in most films, is here wielded like a weapon.
Despite the film’s frequently dark tone, it comes to an end that is doubly shocking. The conclusion (featuring another surprising stutter-step in time) hits like a ton of bricks dropped from a very great height, yet it still manages to redeem the power of imagination and storytelling as a force of good. It’s a magnificent feat and a sure indicator that Atonement will be a major topic of discussion come Oscar time.
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