No film this awards season seems to have been kicked and beaten more than the sweeping period romance, Atonement. This poor movie has a strong stable of well-respected British thespians, a red-hot young director in Joe Wright (2005’s Pride and Prejudice), plenty of lofty, top-notch production values, and the whole enterprise is based off a highly acclaimed novel by author Ian McEwan. Where did all the hate come from? I think it has something to do with the fact that somewhere along the line Atonement became, on paper, the presumptive favorite to win Best Picture. Then reality hit and it hit hard. Atonement wasn’t even nominated by the Writer’s Guild, the Producer’s Guild, or the Director’s Guild and yet the film still managed to eek out a Best Picture nomination for 2007. I became suspicious that Atonement would turn out to be this year’s Dreamgirls, namely a presumptive front-runner that was too calculating and self-conscious and ultimately free of substance to make its mark. While Atonement is perfunctory and nothing altogether special, the film still succeeds as a worthy piece of entertainment that doesn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud.
In the mid 1930s, Robbie (James McAvoy) works as a housekeeper’s son on a lovely English estate. He has his eye on Celia (Keira Knightley) and puts his burning passion to paper, typing two very different notes. The first one is blunt (and features a naughty word that rhymes with “blunt”) and the second one is more of a poetic declaration of his affections. Robbie has instructed Celia’s younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), to pass his love letter to the rightful party. He realizes too late that he sent her off with the wrong letter and Briony reads it herself, dumbfounded at the message and terminology. Briony is a bright child that fancies herself a playwright, but she’s still a child that cannot fully grasp the meaning of Robbie’s advancements. When she intrudes on Robbie and Celia having spontaneous sex against a library wall, she can only assume that Robbie is attacking her older sister (stupidly, neither says anything to clear up the awkwardness and just leaves the scene wordless). That same night Briony discovers her cousin being attacked and she’s certain that Robbie is the culprit, or is she? Her false confession sends Robbie to jail and alters lives forever.
Flash ahead to World War II, and Robbie has joined the Army to be released from jail, Celia reunites with him for the first time in years, and a now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) realizes her foolishness as a child and tries expunging her overwhelming feelings of guilt by working as a nurse and tending to the ghastly numbers of wounded soldiers.
Atonement is visually ravishing to watch. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is lushly colorful and blends light and shadow to an extraordinarily effective degree, draping the performers in contrasting colors that pop. Wright’s camera always seems to be perfectly located to discover beautiful compositions indoors and out; the movie is just visually pleasing on all fronts, like seeing Knightley in her dark green dress bathed in the glow of police lights at night. At several points, however, the film’s look does get overly soft and glossy, like the cameraman smeared gobs of Vaseline over the lens. The period costumes and production design are agreeably period-y. The musical score has moments of great lyrical poignancy and then it shatters when the score resorts to integrating the sound of a clacking typewriter as a percussive instrument. I wanted to beat my head against a typewriter to make it stop.
There’s a vague mechanical air over the entire two hours, like the filmmakers felt that merely assembling all the right pieces and having the right, awards-friendly pedigree would be enough. The five-minute uninterrupted tracking shot along the Dunkirk beach epitomizes this flawed belief. This superfluous shot wanders around soldiers stationed on a beach, winds around the outskirts of the bombed out city, and finally rests in a pub crawling with Brits, but nothing is added by the shot continuing uninterrupted and the staging fails to illuminate anything remarkable about the expensive set. The shot exists simply to call attention to its self and to serve as another bragging point for the filmmakers. The Dunkirk shot adds little to the atmosphere of the film because the scene barely flirts with giving a bigger picture of what is happening. Instead, that shot, like the movie, while well composed and entertaining, is an exercise in self-congratulation.
The film loses serious momentum as it transitions into war and its period of titular atoning. The movie just isn’t as compelling watching Robbie shuffle around at war. Rarely is he in any danger and he just seems to be biding time. Atonement is a tad too prim, a tad too demure to really go deep enough. The romance is intended to be of the unrequited variety but it feels malnourished even at an unrequited level, which is truly saying something. There is so much more beneath the surface but the film never wants to push too far for whatever reason. Knightley and McAvoy have a nice workable chemistry and that’s part of what makes the first half of Atonement the better half. So much of the story involves internal struggle but the movie doesn’t wish to invest the time needed to explore serious psychological wounds. Atonement never capitalizes on the intriguing if melodramatic opening of the film. This is by no means a love story, no matter what the marketers wish to convince otherwise. The romance between Celia and Robbie has little setup to seem believable or worthwhile. This is a movie about the power of words, which naturally is a topic that functions better in books.
After Kinsey and now Atonement, Vanessa Redgrave seems to have found a contemporary niche or her talents: she shows up in the final minutes to give a monologue that demands that the audience reflect from a fresh perspective. Redgrave plays an older adult Briony who has written several best selling books and is being interviewed for television. The ending is designed to be more devastating in print form, and it wants to call into question the nature of fiction and whether or not one lie and be absolved by another. But in the medium of film, the shockwaves are minimal because the language of film is visual. The stutter-step plot structure, which occasionally bends backwards to replay an event from an alternative perspective, is an extraneous annoyance that’s finally justified by Redgrave’s late appearance. What is the true cost for a “happy” ending?
While Knightley and McAvoy get all the attention and cause teen girls to swoon uncontrollably, the real star of Atonement is 13-year-old Ronan. The young actress is a revelation as a sophisticated girl entering the earliest stages of womanhood. She’s nursing some serious puppy love on Robbie and his disinterest fuels her false confession; she means to punish him. Ronan is eloquently precocious at the start, acting wise beyond her years, but when she steels a glimpse at Robbie’s unfortunate letter, she drops her older pretensions and presents the spirited and unrestrained eagerness of a girl that’s madly curious and madly in love. Ronan effortlessly switches between the two sides of Briony, playing the astute, proper young lady or the nervy, confused girl trying to make sense of her budding sexuality. Kudos to the casting director as well for casting an older actress to play the 18-year-old Briony that genuinely looks like a grown-up Ronan.
Naysayers dismissing Atonement as outdated rubbish are diluted; it’s a well-crafted movie from considerably all angles. Then again, those that champion the film as a testament to bravura filmmaking are also diluted; the film is good, yes, but entirely unexceptional. Atonement is a fine film that takes a reportedly unfilmable novel and gives it a good attempt.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on December 28, 2007, in 2007 Movies and tagged benedict cumberbatch, book, doomed romance, drama, james mcavoy, joe wright, keira knightley, oscars, period film, saoirse ronan, vanessa redgrave, war. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.