Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in Joe Wright’s Atonement
Full of longing looks and pregnant with unspoken emotion, it would be easy to write off Atonement as yet another in a long line of British historical romances in the mold of The English Patient. All the parts are here: the handsome cast, the period sets and costumes, the lush cinematography and, of course, the lovers kept apart by fate and circumstance. That’s all fine, but it also sells the movie a little short. There’s a richer subtext to this film that kind of sneaks up on you when you’re not expecting it. 2007 has seen a number of movies that demand a second viewing and I’m adding Atonement to this list. It’s a movie that has a deeper agenda than merely pushing the audience’s emotional buttons.
That’s not to say that Atonement isn’t a first-class button pusher. There were more than a few sniffles in the dark around me as the film ended and it’s not hard to wonder why. This is a classic romantic drama that begins in the mid ’30s when the horrors of WWII are still on the horizon. Regally beautiful Keira Knightley is Cecilia Tallis, daughter to a wealthy family living in a mansion in the English countryside. James McAvoy is Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son with the piercing, steel gray eyes.
The two grew up together, but as they reached school age, they grew apart. Now, with college behind them, they’re brought back together and the old fires are rekindled. They flare up in an especially steamy scene in the mansion library, but the two are interrupted by Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister Briony, a budding writer whose imagination is bigger than she is. Not quite emotionally equipped to understand what’s happening between Cecilia and Robbie, Briony’s imagination runs wild and the consequences are tragic. The rest of the film traces these consequences for each of the characters as the two lovers try to find their way back to one another and Briony attempts to cope with her guilt.
That’s the surface of this beautifully designed and photographed love story. Director Joe Wright has a knack for this kind of literary period drama as he showed in his feature debut Pride & Prejudice. That film also starred Keira Knightley who received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Elizabeth. Knightley isn’t given as much to do in Atonement and she’s probably the weakest part of the film.
To those who were paying attention, James McAvoy made a splash in The Last King of Scotland though most of the spotlight fell on his co-star Forest Whitaker. McAvoy is less likely to be overlooked this time as he’s been given a more interesting part than co-star Knightley. He especially shines in a later scene where he confronts an older Briony for what she’s done.
Briony is played at three different ages by three different actresses. Sioarse Ronan is fine as the precocious pre-teen, but the other two actresses have more powerful scenes. Romola Garai is at the center of an important turning point in the film where 18-year-old nurse Briony comforts a dying French soldier. Vanessa Redgrave has a smaller part as Briony in later life. There’s a moment where she’s captured in close-up talking, a lifetime of regret and loss on her face and in her voice as she recounts her story. The scene is both sad and beautiful.
The most interesting part of the film is how well it seemed to condense a large novel into a 130 page screenplay. As with any film translation, there is a loss of richness and detail, but there is also a remarkable economy at work. A lot of backstory is implied and many details are hinted at without being dwelled upon. The result is a layered and textured film that accomplishes much with little and that never leaves you feeling short changed.
Despite the screenplay’s success, I suspect that the book is probably the more rewarding experience and I have to admit that I wasn’t always 100% engaged with Atonement on a surface level. It was all a little too much at times with the perfect costumes and lush photography and the British airs and meaningful glances. This kind of thing isn’t usually what I go for in a movie and for a while I was prepared to write it all off as a nice looking trifle; enjoyable but instantly forgettable.
Had the film been all surface, this opinion probably would’ve stood, but even from the start it was clear there was something else going on underneath it all. The narrative was unconventional in that it would show an important event occurring from the perspective of Briony, usually at a distance. The story would then backtrack and we’d see the same event from the perspective of the participants. This isn’t any kind of revolutionary technique, but it’s not the kind of thing you expect from an elegant, staid romance.
Reflections were also a recurring visual motif through out the film. Combined with the multiple perspectives, it added to a constant blurring of the lines between what was real, what was remembered and what was imagined. In the end, the film questions what is more important: the truth or simply the impact of what is perceived to be true.
Though Atonement offers a classic set-up, I didn’t expect how it would all unfold and resolve itself. The premise is just a springboard for something deeper and more reflective and that’s what sets it apart from some of the things that have come before it. In part, it’s a rumination on the limits of the power of imagination; the way it can heal and destroy. It’s about the mistakes we make and the consequences they have that can never be taken back no matter how sorry we are.
Of course, I shouldn’t forget Atonement is also a love story and a good one.
Atonement. USA/UK 2007. Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton from a novel by Ian McEwan. Cinematography by Seamus Mcgarvey. Edited by Paul Tothill. Music score composed by Dario Marianelli. Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave. 2 hours 3 minutes. MPAA Rating: R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality. 3.5 stars (out of 5)
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