Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/03/08 11:07:21

"Drama that's as woefully skeletal as Knightley herself."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There’s been plenty of discussion over “the Dunkirk sequence” in Joe Wright’s “Atonement.” A four-plus-minute tracking shot that floats across the beach, the scene utilized thousands of extras, a massive fleet of behind-the-scenes personnel, and invisible CG enhancement to provide a you-are-there account of a mammoth real life event. It’s a glorious moment, a marvel of modern filmmaking - and it’s totally in the wrong movie.

You see, before we arrive at Dunkirk, “Atonement” is an intimate affair. Its first act keeps a close eye on a wealthy family and those around them, focusing its beam on three main characters. As the story opens up beyond the family estate and into World War II, the focus remains entirely on these three characters. Then we get the tracking shot, which belongs in an epic of larger vision; as we watch the long, hard wait for evacuation by a seeming infinite number of soldiers and citizens, the camera glides along the war-torn beach, finds all these other people, peeks into their lives. Is it the movie opening itself up to a grander scope for its second half? Nope. After the tracking shot, we return to the intimate scale, and the rest of the film deals entirely with the three main characters, a close-up view of a constricted tale that just happens to be set against a larger backdrop.

Why, then, did we need to spend four minutes with thousands of soldiers whom we’ll never meet again, soldiers who have no real bearing on the story at all? Frankly, we don’t. The same “war is hell” message could be told in small-scale form. Director Wright, who peppers his movie with directorial flourishes throughout, is either confused about the intentions of his story, eager to call attention to himself by showing off his newfound love for flashy technique, or, more likely, both.

“Atonement” is adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan. I have not read it, so I cannot attest as to where the source of such a distracting lack of focus originates, in the novel or in the screenplay from Christopher Hampton (“The Quiet American”). It’s not just the out-of-nowhere unnecessary tracking shot, either - the film is riddled with so many shifts in vision that it comes off as a severe case of art house-meets-ADD. Example: one of the three main characters, pivotal to the entire story and all that happens in it, completely disappears for the entire second act of the film. Whoops.

That third character is Briony Tallis, the youngest daughter of a well-to-do British family. When we first meet her, it is the mid-1930s and she is thirteen years old, played by the young actress Saoirse Ronan. It’s the summer, and the family is enjoying another leisurely season away from the concerns of the real world. Briony writes plays and entertains bored cousins, while older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) enjoys a sexual awakening, flirting with childhood friend Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a servant’s son.

And there is where trouble begins. Briony witnesses several sexual encounters (and near-encounters) between Cecilia and Robbie and is not sure what to think. When she stumbles upon a naughty love letter contained with language deemed inappropriate in pre-war England, she becomes convinced that the boy is “a sexual maniac.” Later, she stumbles upon her cousin Lola (Juno Temple), and it appears she is being raped. We do not see the face of the attacker, but Briony insists it was Robbie.

Of course we know this is not true, simply because Wright is obviously playing games by hiding the face of the attacker. So we are left to watch as Briony’s lie leads to Robbie’s arrest. When the film jumps forward a few years, to the thick of the war, and we see Robbie as a common soldier and not the well-to-do gentleman he was on track of becoming before his arrest, we are meant to lean back in our chairs and “a ha” at the commentary that Briony’s lie has ruined his life far beyond her comprehension.

Which leads to the atonement of the title - in the third act (after she is absent from the story for a ridiculously long time), an older Briony turns up (now played by Romola Garai), working as a nurse during the war, emptying dying soldiers’ bedpans, relentlessly scrubbing away the blood of her sins in fits of “out, out, damn spot.” She is paying for her lies, and the third act follows her as she tries to apologize to Cecilia and Robbie.

But here’s the kicker: whatever happened to Lola? We see her late in the film, but only from a distance. Does she feel guilty for never speaking up as to Robbie’s innocence? Why must Briony carry the burden alone? The filmmakers obviously did not forget about Lola, so why do they keep her so silent? It’s a massive hole in the story and its themes.

Of course, the film’s defenders will argue that an epilogue, featuring Vanessa Redgrave as an older Briony, explains that (and this could be viewed as a spoiler, although it doesn’t really discuss plot outcomes, but still) the entire story is filtered through Briony’s own experiences - it is revealed that the movie we just watched was her fictionalized account of true events. As such, Lola does not matter; Briony is so obsessed with her own role in the lie that she becomes the central offender.

But it doesn’t quite hold. If, as we are told, Briony has grown up to become a popular and important author, surely she would be intelligent enough to notice holes as gaping as Lola’s glaring absence.

Of course, the epilogue barely holds up anyway, for the simple fact that it feels more like a gimmick than a genuine conclusion. It’s literary trickery at its shallowest. Great stories have been told with unreliable narrators, but the point of such a role is to make the audience reassess all that came before. The epilogue here is so limply tagged on that while it negates all that came before, we’re left with no interest to go back and reevaluate the story.

It’s cheap manipulation, but then, cheap manipulation is what “Atonement” does best. Its plot is designed so events are told and retold, the timeline of the story folding over itself so we may see various moments though multiple characters’ eyes. Instead of providing a deeper understanding of these people, we’re simply played like a fiddle, Wright gleefully withholding key information for the cheap reason that he can reveal it to us later like a third-rate magician.

Even without all of this bungled structure and flawed internal logic, “Atonement” still fizzles. Wright’s previous film, “Pride and Prejudice,” was a beautiful yet dreadful bore, and the filmmaker shows no sign of improvement here. His film is stiff and cold, his cast overly rigid (Knightley being the worst offender, reciting her lines with all the passion of a brick; McAvoy, meanwhile, is a wet noodle who never wins us over), his story a limp, inaccessible costume drama. Wright is more concerned with cinematic trickery (the Dunkirk sequence, the “gotcha” revelations) than with engaging his audience on a personal level.

“Atonement” is meant to be a tribute to the old fashioned romantic epics of Hollywood’s golden years, yet with Wright at the helm, cluttering it all up, it becomes an epic snore.

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