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Atonement

[Rating: 3.5/5]

By Willie Krischke — March 18, 2008

“If you write a story, you only have to say the world castle, and you can see the towers and the woods and the village below, but in a play…it all depends on other people.” — Briony

Set in blissful, boring, 1930’s upperclass England, “Atonement” hangs on a series of unfortunate coincidences. In the course of one day, Briony, a precocious 12 year old and aspiring playwright, witnesses four separate events, all of them showing a shocking lack of caution or discretion on the parts of the people involved. So shocking, in fact, the hardest thing to believe may be that nobody else witnessed any of them, or even suspected they might be taking place. These events lead her to draw her own conclusions about her older sister, Celia, and the gardener’s son, Robby, who are naturally playing out the beginning stages of a love affair for the ages. Celia’s conclusions, and who she tells them to, have dramatic effects on both of their lives. Thus begins the tragedy, and ends Act 1.

Despite the improbability, the first half is very engaging. Sometimes the film rolls back over itself, showing us what Briony saw from Celia’s perspective, so that we, the audience, know what really happened. The writing is sharp and the characters, aside from Celia and Robby, are engagingly quirky. The cinematography is lush and luxurious, the art design full of pastel wallpapers and costumes and flowers just past their bloom. Everything feels slightly washed out, a little overripe, a day before the rot sets in. A fly is heard buzzing about the nursery.

The second act jumps us ahead to World War 2. Robbie is a soldier in France, and Celia is working for the Nurses Corp, waiting for him to come home. Now, here is where the movie loses me. After all the set up, I expect the second act to be about tragedy – specifically, about the tragic results of Briony’s misinterpretation. This ought to be Robby’s imprisonment and Celia’s estrangment from her family, Instead, I am given World War 2. Hmm. Am I supposed to believe that, without Briony’s testimony against Robby, and his ensuing imprisonment, he would never have become a soldier? At the time, Germany is bombing the hell of out England , and every able young man with half a sense of patriotism was joining the army. Only an aristocratic coward, a draft dodger, would have sat comfy in a cabin by the sea with his sweetheart at a time like that.

Feeling very confused, I talked to someone who had read Ian McEwan’s novel, upon which the movie is based. Apparently it is clear in the novel that Briony, in her guilt, feels more responsible for Robby and Celia’s fate than she actually is. A 12 year old can’t be blamed for a war, but a 12 year old can certainly feel as if the war is her fault. I’d imagine that writing in 1st person makes this much easier to communicate on the page than it is on the screen. Nonetheless, I feel that the major failing of “Atonement” is that this crucial element was not communicated.

Still – it’s a great looking flick. Maybe it’s because the movie looks so great, and moves so gracefully, it’s easy not to notice that the second act doesn’t really connect to the first. The filmmaking continues to be excellent; the piece de resistance is a sprawling, single take vision of the evacuation of Dunkirk, complete with a ferris wheel and farm animals. Sometimes you wish it would cut; not much on the screen makes sense, but that’s how it’s appearing to Robbie as well — on top of being a generally chaotic time and place, he’s suffering from a blistering fever. This is James McAvoy’s chance to shine, and shine he does. He plays Robbie with a stunning mix of confusion, anger, and despair, without ever seeming to feel sorry for himself. He is a certain part of England, wondering where this war came from, what it will lead to, and what happened to the blissful, boring days.

Keira Knightley is great, but I have a feeling she can play parts like this in her sleep. Certainly she was cast because she shone so brightly in “Pride and Prejudice” (both movies were directed by Joe Wright.) When she first appeared, years ago, I thought she was the poor man’s Winona Ryder. But she has eclipsed Ryder completely, showing a much greater range and talent — as well as taste in choosing roles. Now Wynona Ryder is the poor man’s Keira Knightley.

Unfortunately, there is a third act, or epilogue, perhaps. Even though it reveals some important information, it feels mostly unnecessary and not at all related, visually, to the rest of the movie. The first two acts are lush and lyrical; the third is stark and prosaic, taking place against a blank, black screen. The film has put so much emphasis on the written word up to this point, it feels like a cheat to reveal its final secret as part of a television interview. Surely there was a better way to film this segment.

“Atonement” is a movie of really great parts that don’t quite add up to a great whole. It steps on its own feet; if this is supposed to be Briony’s telling of the story, then the moments when we veer from her perspective — when the camera chooses to show us what really happened – are the ones that confound the whole thing. Joe Wright directed some incredible sequences here, but in the process lost sight of the story he was telling, and let his talent run away from the service of that story. Ultimately, “Atonement” is good material that needed a better, more experienced, more surehanded director.

Recommended

  • if you’re looking for a good cry
  • if you think going to the movies means you should shut down, to some degree, the logic parts of your brain, and just let the imagery wash over you.
  • if you like auteur filmmaking. That one take scene is worth the money.
  • if you loved the book, and are willing to forgive the movie its shortcomings

Not Recommended

  • if it is going to bug you that the two halves don’t really equal a whole.
  • if big, lush period dramas put you to sleep.
  • if you loved the book, and aren’t willing to forgive the movie its shortcomings.
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  1. Top Movies of the Decade | GonnaWatchIt.com linked to this post on August 14, 2010

    […] took me a while to come around to the charms of “Atonement.”  In my original review, I mostly saw its faults, concluding that it was “good material that needed a better, more […]

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