by Mel Valentin
For his first film, director Joe Wright adapted Jane Austen’s "Pride & Prejudice," winning the award for best director from British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), the British equivalent of the Academy Awards, in the process. "Pride & Prejudice" also garnered an Academy Award nomination for Keira Knightley. Turning to a contemporary novelist, Booker Prize-winning Ian McEwan, for his second film, "Atonement," Wright displays all the skills of a significantly more experienced director. But literary adaptations can be problematic, no more so time-spanning, viewpoint shifting period novels like "Atonement," equal parts character study, meditation on art and fiction, and wartime (as in World War II) melodrama.Atonement opens on a country manor in Surrey Hills, England. It’s 1935 and thirteen-year old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) dreams of becoming a writer. Her latest play will feature her fifteen-year old cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and Lola’s twin brothers, Jackson (Charlie von Simson) and Pierrot (Felix von Simson). She hopes to impress her older brother, Leon (Patrick Kennedy), who’s due to arrive with a friend, Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), later that day. Briony’s older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), is back from her studies at Cambridge. Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the Tallis’ housekeeper, Grace (Brenda Blethyn), is also back from Cambridge. Seeing Robbie’s potential, the Tallis’ have put Robbie through university.
"Flawed, sporadically compelling filmmaking."
As Briony works on her play, however, she spots Robbie and Cecilia apparently having an argument over an expensive vase near a water fountain. Briony can see Robbie and Cecilia, but can’t hear their conversation, instead relying on body gestures and her own blinkered naïve view of the world and romantic relationships. Later, Robbie asks Briony to deliver a letter of apology to Cecilia. It’s the wrong letter. Cecilia eventually sees it, but so does Briony, who now perceives Robbie as sexually depraved. When Briony spots Cecilia and Robbie in an intimate moment, her suspicions about Robbie are seemingly confirmed, but it’s not until the twins disappear and someone is really assaulted that the Tallis family closes social ranks, leaving Robbie in a precarious situation.
Atonement jumps forward to 1940. Robbie is a private in the British Army stationed in France. Forced to flee after Germany overruns France, Robbie and two other soldiers have to make their way to Dunkirk and, hopefully, rescue by the British Navy. Cutting off ties with her family, Cecilia works as a nurse in British hospital. Briony (Romola Garai), now eighteen, tries to atone for the harm she’s caused Robbie and Cecilia by foregoing Cambridge and training as a nurse. Robbie desperately clings to the few memories he has of Cecilia, letters, and a postcard, vowing to come home. Cecilia pines for Robbie, dreams of seeing him again. Briony hopes to repair what she’s broken, but the war dictates their fates, separately and together.
Atonement hews close to the source material, something that will certainly make the novel’s many readers happy, but standing on its own as a film, Atonement loses dramatic momentum as soon as it jumps forward five years, following each character’s separate path, some more compelling than the others. While we can talk about the Three Unities (time, place, and character) as postulated by Aristotle 2,000 years ago as a storytelling rule that Wright didn’t care to follow, which in turn creates the loss of momentum and cohesion present earlier in the film, it’s easier to “violate” the rule in a novel where the key attributes of the Three Unities aren’t nearly as important, let alone vital. In short, episodic sprawl is good where novels are concerned. Sprawl, however, isn’t "good" when we're talking about a different medium, film.
Here, that sprawl is definitely problematic. Despite scenes filled with period detail and Wright’s camerawork, quietly unobtrusive during the country manor scenes, wildly inventive during the second half, especially a 10-minute take set piece following Robbie at Dunkirk and a brief scene inside a seaside movie theater, visual style can only take us so far before we realize that they’re watching a disappointingly conventional wartime romance that's ameliorated somewhat by a final reel “bait-and-switch” that adds unexpected, but no less welcome, metafictional complexity. Unfortunately, it arrives much too late, especially after we've been treated to one too many shots of either Cecilia and Robbie pining away for each other or a guilt-stricken Briony tending to badly injured men.As much as "Atonement" sounds like a failure or a misfire, it’s not, thanks to Wright’s direction, both in the elegant set pieces he weaves out of McEwan’s novel and his direction of the actors, all of them uniformly excellent. Although "Atonement" could have easily pitched over into pure melodrama, it doesn’t and that’s due to the understated, restrained performances Wright elicits from his talented cast. James McAvoy ("The Last King of Scotland") continues to grow as an actor, handling his role with a subtlety that’s easy to miss, but shouldn’t. Both Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai also deserve mention for their performances of Briony at thirteen and eighteen. Ronan perfectly captures Briony’s bright-eyed naïveté and egocentrism. Garai is just as perfect in capturing the almost-adult Briony in all her confusion, self-doubt, and desire for redemption.
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originally posted: 12/06/07 23:48:27