Phil on Film Index
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Review - Atonement
Atonement begins with the clickety-clack of typewriter keys, hammering out the opening credits, and we continue to hear this sound as the camera moves through the rooms of a stately country house, eventually settling on 13 year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who is putting the finishing touches to her first play. When she gets up to find her mother, the sound of the typewriter merges seamlessly with Dario Marianelli's music to sweep us through the building as Briony flits from room to room. It's a brilliant opening. Within moments Briony has been established as a storyteller, a child whose mind is constantly taking flights of fancy, and during the course of the film her propensity for telling tales will have destroyed two lives irreparably.
Ian McEwan's acclaimed but rather overrated 2001 novel Atonement has often been considered a book which defies adaptation, relying as it does on tricky literary conceits and a most unreliable narrator; but this screen version, from director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, is an admirable effort. The book has been condensed and streamlined in a smart fashion, and Wright - in only his second film - orchestrates the onscreen events with incredible confidence and verve. If the film never quite reaches the level of greatness it aspires to, it's certainly not for a lack of quality or imagination.
The first hour, in particular, is often stunning. The pivotal events in McEwan's narrative spring from a child misunderstanding the true nature of what she has witnessed, and the film has a neat approach to the multiple points of view the story requires. In the first, and most important, of these scenes Briony watches from the window as her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and the gardener Robbie (James McAvoy) become embroiled in a heated exchange by the fountain. Inexplicably, Cecilia then strips down to her undergarments and plunges into the fountain, emerging seconds later and standing exposed in front of Robbie before hurriedly dressing and fleeing the scene. We see what Briony sees at first, but Wright then immediately cuts back to the start of the sequence to show us exactly what happened, and he uses the same tactic when Briony stumbles upon Cecilia and Robbie's intimate encounter in the library.
The cumulative effect of these incidents, along with Briony's interception of a note meant for her sister (the filmmakers, to their credit, haven't toned down the language used in this letter), leads her to make an false accusation against Robbie which has devastating consequences. The two lovers are wrenched apart as Robbie is arrested, but we don't really feel the pain of their split as the romance, seemingly born out of just two scenes together, feels underdeveloped. The pair of them are then separated for the bulk of the movie (although they do share one lovely, Brief Encounter-ish scene later on), as McAvoy goes to war and Cecilia becomes a nurse. Briony (now played by Romola Garai) also signs up for training as a nurse, but she is tormented by an ever-growing sense of guilt over her actions four years previously.
When the three principal actors are separated in this way, Atonement loses much of the intensity that it displayed in its opening section, and it never quite regains that early liveliness and ingenuity. The whole film is masterfully put together, with Wright finding a way to make every shot shimmer with a invigorating sense of beauty and sensuality, but as the film progresses one sometimes gets the feeling that he's a little bit too in love with his own visuals. There are a number of moments in the film's middle section which reek of self-indulgence, like the shot of a lonely Robbie silhouetted against a cinema screen showing Le Quai des Brumes; and the film grinds to a halt when Wright decides to take on a five-minute tracking shot along the beach at Dunkirk. It's an impressive sight, sure, but it's such a self-consciously swaggering display of directorial artistry I found myself considering the logistics of the sequence rather than engaging with the content of it. The parts of McEwan's book dealing with Robbie's wartime experiences were the most evocative and compelling in the novel, but for all his technical bravado Wright doesn't find a way to similarly express the horror of conflict.
In fact, the only sensation we get of the trauma Robbie experiences is by looking at the increasingly haunted expression on James McAvoy's face. This is a really superb performance from McAvoy, who has been fine in a series of recent films but he goes to new depths here with a completely authentic and emotionally dextrous piece of acting. As the object of his affections Knightly is somewhat less impressive. She is perhaps hindered by the emotional reticence of her character, but I remain unconvinced that she possesses the range and depth required for any serious acting performance (how she received an Academy Award nomination for her average work in Wright's Pride and Prejudice is still beyond me). The best female performances in the film come from the breathtakingly assured Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai as the various stages of Briony. Late in the film, Vanessa Redgrave appears as the elder Briony (the casting of these three women as the same character is superb), who has committed her story to paper in a bid to atone for her misdeeds.
This climax, changing our perception of everything that has gone before, was unconvincing on the page and it flops badly again here. Hampton has probably taken the best possible route to bringing this final chapter to the screen, but for a tale of romance and lost love it carries no emotional force. It is, like many of Atonement's flaws, a problem inherent from the novel, but throughout the film the lack of a heart to the story is telling. We watch the film impressed but unmoved, admiring its style and intelligence while never really getting close to the characters involved.
It does remain an impressive film, though, and Atonement will undoubtedly receive numerous nominations when awards season comes around, most of which will be richly deserved. There is an undeniable thrill to be had watching a young British director working with such a breadth of vision, and it is a rare thing indeed to be presented with a film from these isles that genuinely feels like a cinematic event. Joe Wright has the eye and the talent to go far, and despite his tendency to be a little too enthralled with his own ability at times, he should be encouraged in his endeavours to bring a new, dynamic approach to British prestige pictures. I'm sure this director has a great film in him; on this occasion he is unfortunate to be defeated by his own source material.