A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

Rank: # 22

ATONEMENT jjj
½ 

2007, R, 122 mins.

Robbie Turner: James McAvoy / Cecilia Tallis: Keira Knightley / Briony, age 18: Romola Garai / Briony, age 13: Saoirse Ronan / Older Briony: Vanessa Redgrave / Grace Turner: Brenda Blethyn

Directed by Joe Wright / Written by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan.

ATONEMENT seems to be garnering serious consideration for Best Picture consideration.  Many also feel that the film will sweep the Oscars.  There is no denying that it's a powerfully emotional melodrama and another impressive directorial turn for Joe Wright (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE), whom is only 35-years old.  Yet, even amidst all the overwhelming chatter of potential Academy Award praise, my overall response to the film questions that possibility.  In terms of this being one of the best of 2007, my heart is telling me yes, but my head is telling me no.  The film works marvelously until its epilogue, which left me scratching my head in dissatisfaction.

In many ways, ATONEMENT is an absolute triumph for its young director, who seems to be definitively showcasing that he is clearly ahead of the pack when it comes to adapting textured and dramatically complex novels.  His PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was clear proof of that, and there have been many out there that believe that ATONEMENT - written by Ian McEwan and one of the most celebrated novels of recent years - would be difficult to adapt to the silver screen.  Of course, the literary work is one that has received universal praise since its 2001 publication: It is widely considered McEwan’s best novel, was shortlisted for a 2001 Booker prize for fiction, Time Magazine voted it best novel of 2001 and recently The Observer rated it on its list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All-Time.  Clearly, trying to appropriate this for a feature film was no easy task.

I think that Wright has succeeded on most levels.  Although some of the story has been altered for big screen treatment, the entire emotional essence of the book remains as true as ever.  The film covers an amazingly broad and epic storyline, spanning several countries and decades, but at the epicenter of the film lies a simple story told with potency and heartbreaking sentiment.  Essentially, the film is based on the precept of how one modest lie can, in turn, unalterably destroy the happiness of the lives of not only those that were the victims of the falsehood, but also of the person that spoke it.  Herein lies the ultimate tragedy of the film: In many ways, no one is allowed to truly live a fortunate and merry existence.

The sadness of the story is made all the more dreadful by the series of the narrative threads that antedates it.  The film opens with frivolity, energy and a free-spiritedness.  It’s 1935 and a World War is eminent, but many of the residents of the lavish and affluent English countryside could care less.  There is one family, the Tallises, which will have a series of personal catastrophes so dire that the thought of war seems more pleasurable.  In the beginning we meet 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan, a terrific find) who is witnessing the budding relationship of a modest servant, Robbie (James McAvoy, a standout here) and her luminous older sister, Cecilia (the unattainably luminous Keira Knightley).

Briony is a fascinating creation.  She is very crafty and intelligent for her age, but a bit naive and foolish.  She is an aspiring playwright (not bad for a young teen) and her ambition to be a strong future literary force is stunted by her own incalculable selfishness and stubbornness.  She kind of has a crush on the young Robbie, but when it’s apparent that he only has eyes for her beautiful older sibling, she goes into full-out jealousy mode, which consequentially precipitates her future damaging actions.

One incident forever changes Briony’s view of Robbie and the lives of everyone around her.  Like all great literary couples, Robbie and Cecelia are are vastly separated by social class, but their love and passion for one another overcomes odds.  However, one afternoon Briony sees something kind of shocking: While looking through a bedroom window she sees Robbie apparently forcing her sister to engage in lewd, sexualized behaviour.  We see it from her perspective and, oddly enough, Robbie's actions seem so contradictory to the type of soft-spoken and shy young lad that he is; after all, he’s no Ike Turner.

Yet, the entire theme of this film is based on lies and the twisted perception of this young girl.  We later discover what really transpired between Robbie and Cecelia - in a pseudo-RASHOMON fashion - and the film whisks back in time to show that the first perceived raunchy moment with Robbie being a sex fiend actually was a tender moment of the two falling for one another, during which a silly blunder involving a priceless vase was thrown in for good measure.  Later we see another scene of Briony sneaking in and witnessing what appears to be Robbie forcing himself on her sister in a darkened study.  Again, the film teleports us back to the lead up of that moment, which essentially shows Robbie and Cecelia giving into their deep sexual desires for one another.  We learn of the truth to the scene, but Cecelia does not.

During one evening, where everyone has gathered for a dinner party, tragedy strikes.  One of Briony’s adolescent acquaintances is found brutally raped.  Briony comes upon the scene too late to help the girl, but not too late to see a shadowy figure rise from her and rush off into darkness.  She could not possibly be able to identify the culprit, but her ever growing enviousness and overprotectiveness of her sister fuels her twisted desire to pin the crime on the very innocent Robbie.  Without hesitation, she points her finger at the young man, gets the police involved, and Robbie is quickly - and wrongfully - escorted to prison in a heart-wrenching scene of pain and anguish between him and Cecelia.

The film then flash forwards to the early stages of the war where Robbie escapes more prison time by enlisting in the army and is stationed in France.  Cecelia is now a nurse in London, as is the 18-year-old Briony (played in a performance that exudes inner conflict and deep regret by Ramola Garai).  Briony desperately tries to rekindle her relationship with her now estranged sister and atone for her seemingly unforgivable sins.  There is a moment where we see all of the participants gathered together where each one reveals every emotion that has been bottled up inside since that terrible night when Robbie was arrested; it’s one of the film's most arresting and sad scenes, as all of the characters show how none of them will achieve any level of happiness in the future.  From here the film careens towards a concluding moment far in the future where an elderly and dying Briony is being interviewed for her new novel, which is a blow-by-blow account of her life and her disastrous manipulation of Robbie and Cecelia’s happiness together.

If anything, ATONEMENT is an actor’s paradise.  Keira Knightly and James McAvoy have a sizzling chemistry and thoroughly encompass the gloomy and melancholic nature of their relationship.  Knightly has a field day playing up to her strengths, which is looking as exquisite as possible while appearing dignified and graceful, and I especially liked how McAvoy is able to so effectively capture the years of resentment and pain that he has had to bare.  The film’s best and most crucial character is Briony, and as played by three actors (the oldest version is played by Vanessa Redgrave), she has the largest and most difficult arc of any character.  She goes from a selfish and conveying brat to a remorseful and timid teenager, whose experience in the war has deeply sobered her.  As a dying old woman, the character finally concedes to how her actions as a child led to a life of misery for her and her sister.

The film is also an incredible triumph on a technical level.  Wright bathes the opening moments with jubilant colors and gorgeous vista shots of the English countryside and of the Tallis’ manor.  As the film denigrates into moral decay, the visuals gets murkier.  Wright’s depiction of war torn Dunkirk is a bravura bit of filmmaking dexterity and craft, which is particularly clear during one shot - which is unbroken for nearly five minutes - that bobs in and out of showing Robbie and company walk the beaches of Dunkirk while revealing the horrors of the war and the devastation left in its wake.  I have seen many attempts at a long running, uncut steady cam shot, but this marks the first one that seems absolutely seamless.  It is one of the cinema’s most impressively mounted and awesomely empowering setups, and apparently - and amazingly - was achieved after only five attempts.

Just about everything in ATONEMENT seems to gel so eloquently: The precision and fervency the actors bring to the material; the impressive handling of the film’s purposely self-conscious way of using irony and self-reflection in key scenes by showing different vantage points minutes apart from one another; and the astonishing set pieces that Wright and company conjure up to give us a hellish p.o.v. of War-torn France.  Yet, it’s the film’s ending that is largely unsatisfying, which never completely packs the emotional wallop of the story that leads up to it.  It seems to develop out of the wishes of the audience to have both a torturously sad ending and one that gives a happy and resolved one.  The manner with which it quickly and hastily subverts the truth within the film’s story - not too mention how it resolves the ever-growing pain and deep discontentment of Briony - is too contrived and gimmicky.  It unfortunately lets the film meander away from being a unqualified masterpiece; instead, it becomes a flawed one.

ATONEMENT, as a result, is a searing work of mesmerizing conviction and painful affection that daftly bridges the gap between sensual romance and utter decay and catastrophe.  All of the performances are as secure as can be, the writing is sharply articulate and potent, and the direction by the thirty-something Joe Wright reveals him to be a filmmaker of such commanding skill and authoritative precision.  It’s just too bad that the film gets saddled with a final few minutes that seems like one of those misguided alternate endings that you’d find on the DVD special features.  As a result, ATONEMENT is an impressively realized vision that will stay with me for a long time, but its denouement is one that would have been best eliminated for an ending that built towards more natural crescendos that avoided being so shoddy and haphazard.  Because of this, the film makes a few small missteps on his way to greatness.

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