It seems that every year a movie emerges whose identity is so completely tied to its chances of winning an Oscar that its actually strengths or weaknesses begin to take a back seat. People talk so much about the odds of the film getting an Oscar that they forget to talk about the movie itself; often this actually leads movies like Cold Mountain and Dreamgirls to not even be nominated. This year the overhyped Oscar frontrunner is Joe Wright’s Atonement, an epic romance based on the uber-acclaimed Ian McEwan novel of the same name.
The film is set in 1935 England on a country estate owned by a wealthy man named Jack Tallis. Jack has two daughters; the first is the thirteen year old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) who has taken to writing. The other daughter, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), is in her twenties and has become engaging in some sly flirtations with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). Through a series of misunderstandings, the young Briony comes to believe that Turner is a sexual pervert, and because of this she baselessly accuses him of a sexual assault that had occurred on the estate. Turner is sent to prison and is eventually let out to join the army when World War two begins. Before they are separated, Turner and Cecilia declare their love for one another.
Atonement is a hard film to summarize, and an even harder film to discuss, without revealing many of the film’s twists. From the description, it would be easy to confuse this for a Merchant-Ivory style costume drama, but that is not accurate at all. Though the film begins at a country estate, the film does not delve into all the usual issues of class and etiquette one would expect from such a setting. After the film’s first act that setting is abandoned and the film ventures into the wider world of WW2 era England.
Part of what makes the film special is that it never reveals what its central conflict is going to be. Initial it appears to be a conventional romantic conflict with Robbie trying to win over the heart of Cecilia, then it appears to turn into a Homeric story of a man trying to return to his lover, then the story’s perspective unexpectedly shifts and the film goes down a different and more unique path. Because I don’t want to reveal this perspective shift and its importance, this review is going to be very hard to write.
Because perspective is such a prevalent theme in the film, it must employ a variety of tricks to allow various scenes to be seen from multiple points of view. This is one of the elements of the movie that works best. The film consistently employs interesting tricks to depict the passage of time and tell parallel stories.
The performances here are all solid but not transcendent, mainly because the actors avoid showing off. You will find no Academy baiting in the acting here, which is in some ways a relief. James McAvoy has the most actively transformative performance here and must be believable on both a country estate and the Normandy battlefield. McAvoy (who was Forrest Forest Whitaker’s scene partner is last year’s The Last King of Scotland) really makes his presence known here. Keira Knightley, who doesn’t have as much screen time as the film’s advertising would leave you to believe, is also quite nice as Cecilia. Finally there is the character of Briony who is played by Saoirse Ronan at 13, and later by Romola Garai at 18. Both actresses manage to convince the audience that they are playing the same person. I’m not sure whether Garai was trying to play an older Ronan or if Ronan was playing a younger Garai or they both planned it out, either way someone did a great job in the role.
Joe Wright emerged in 2005 with a fairly solid adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Though that Jane Austin novel was a work the world did not need another adaptation of, Wrights ambitious visual style was a breath of fresh air; it was a bad project to establish a directorial style with. Here Wright is again using crisp cinematography but with a more subdued color pallet to match the slightly more melancholy story. Gone are the widescreen vistas of Pride and Prejudice, though they appear to still be present in the first act, they disappear as soon as the war starts. That doesn’t mean Joe Wright has taken to some sort of neo-realist approach, it just means that his style has been adjusted to fit the mood of this very different source material. The highlight of Wrights visual trick bag is a five minute tracking shot showing the Dunkirk beach during the evacuation. The extended tracking shot is an old trick that’s been used many times before, but it hasn’t quite worn out its appeal yet, it is still a very impressive stunt.
Less successful is Dario Marianelli’s overbearing orchestral score that seeks to guide the viewer through the film’s emotional peaks and valleys with very little subtlety. This is not bad music, but it does become an annoyance, the sound mix places way too much emphasis on it. Marianelli also made the poor decision to incorporate the sound of a typewriter into the score and use it to mark moments of thought and emotion that occurs onscreen, but ultimately only annoys the viewer.
What really justifies this film and makes everything really come together is a very strong ending which I wouldn’t even dream of giving away. I’ll just say that it is a very creative ending that is completely unexpected, but also a little bit abrupt.
Ultimately Atonement is a very strong piece of work that avoided all the literary clichés I was afraid it would fall into. I wish I could talk more about it without spoiling it, but I think my vague descriptions will ultimately help the viewer more than a spoiler heavy review. This is a well made movie that I have a lot of respect for, but I wish it hadn’t waited until the last fifteen minutes to really explain itself, everything before feels like an elaborate set-up to a great reveal. This is a movie that’s easier to respect then love, but still it should definitely be seen.
***1/2 out of four