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Year Released: 2007
We get a movie like Atonement every year. It's something of an Oscar tradition: highly polished technically, adopting a proper sense of gravitas, appearing to say a lot of important tings without actually saying much at all. The Academy loves honoring such movies because they entail very little genuine risk. No one really hates them, and their Masterpiece Theater sheen imports a sense of film as art... which feels great in the moment but never stands up to the test of time. Atonement has garnered comparisons to The English Patient, and that's very apt. What most people forget is that, beneath its awards-darling dazzle, The English Patient turned out to be a sanctimonious bore.
I don't hate Atonement nearly as much as I do Patient. In other circumstances, I might even be predisposed to enjoy it. Director Joe Wright has tackled Ian McEwan's celebrated novel with resolute dedication, working overtime to properly transfer its tale of love betrayed to the big screen. As craftsmanship, it makes for quite an accomplishment. The editing ranks among the best of the year, conveying a broad narrative in flourishing staccatos. The soundtrack adds more punch to the picture -- its use of typewriter keys as an instrument is brilliant -- while the gorgeous photography and spot-on sets remain uniformly gorgeous. And ironically, that's all part of the problem. For as beautiful as it appears and as stunning as some of its mechanistic somersaults become, they ultimately emphasize the lack of real truth at its heart.
The story adopts a simple arc in order to illuminate more ostensibly profound musings: notably the relationship between fact and fiction, which its central figure Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) struggles to understand throughout her life. To quote her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), she's "rather fanciful," with a knack for writing that delights her aristocratic prewar family but a distressing habit of believing her own balderdash. That proves disastrous for Cecilia and her young lover Robbie (James McAvoy), a servant's child on his way to medical school and yet never quite accepted by the Tallises and their ilk. Briony is fairly well-disposed towards him, but at 13, she has a lot to learn about how love works, and when she catches him in flagrante with Cecilia in the library, she jumps to conclusions that eventually land the boy in prison.
The second act of Atonement shifts forward five years to the cauldron of World War II, where Robbie is now a buck private on the furlough program and both Cecilia and Briony work as nurses in London. The consequences of her misunderstanding lay heavily on the younger Tallis (now played by Romola Garai), alienated from Cecilia and punishing herself with drudgerous penance in a military hospital. As she comes to grips with what she's done, she starts looking for ways to make amends, but with Cecilia refusing to speak to her and Robbie lost amid the apocalyptic scrum of a collapsing France, she has her work cut out for her.
Wright has a strong sense of how to articulate her dilemma, but his cold eye never finds the character's proper emotions. The two lovers suffer from similar detachment: Knightley reflects a constant air of blank aloofness, intended to convey upper-class refinement, but growing increasingly monotonous as the film drags on. McAvoy does better, but his sojourn amid the war is confounded by the well-crafted baubles with which Atonement sees fit to surround him. A pile of school girls with bullets in their heads, the despairing serenity of a field of poppies, and the film's big showstopper -- a sprawling four-minute pan over the insanity at the Dunkirk beaches -- reflect far too much polish to convey the horrid absurdities for which they are clearly intended. The tracking shot lingers too long for its own good, while the remainder simply hammers away at the notion that monstrous oaks have grown from Briony's acorns. Simply put, they feel like stunts: impressive feats of filmmaking bravado existing solely to wow the Academy. They also render the dramatic necessity of the lovers' separation unduly obtuse -- it could have been neatly managed in one-third of the time were Wright not so intent on blowing our socks off.
Other parts of Atonement suffer deeply from cliché and contrivance. The early sections hinge on a misplaced note that bears far too much of the plot's weight on far too flimsy a frame. Robbie's undoing also hinges on the complicity of other characters -- driven, presumably, by class prejudice but still asking us to swallow quite a bit for the sake of the story. More overt chestnuts raise their ugly heads as well (a dragon-lady nurse, a cockney Man Friday, a disappointingly trite moment where Robbie chases after a double-decker bus carrying Cecilia away), and Wright never reconciles the sense of sprawling epic with the more intimate character drama beneath it.
The final act proves both the most heartening part of the film and the most problematic: featuring Vanessa Redgrave as an elderly Briony musing on the implications of her sin and the way she eventually made up for it. The character's fabulist instincts come full circle, aided by an expectedly strong performance from Redgrave, but also adopting an extremely dubious sense of closure. Atonement deserves points for favoring ambiguous endings, but the more one thinks about the resolution it presents, the more troublesome its implications become.
Wright compensates in a number of different ways, and lest my criticism appear too harsh, he certainly has the chops to take on a project of such complexity. Like so many other films of this nature, lowered expectations might produce a more positive response, allowing the film's strengths to be enjoyed and its shortcomings downplayed (if never entirely dismissed). But undue praise has elevated Atonement far beyond its station, setting the stage for yet another unfounded Oscar nomination at the expense of demonstrably superior films. Nothing ruins a pretty good movie more than calling it great, and with Atonement, even "pretty good" feels like a stretch: excusing a deeply problematic effort for the patches of brilliance it occasionally sees fit to produce.
Review published 01.13.2008.
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