I am not a very period piece loving kind of guy, the Merchant Ivory, all too refined, stuffier than thou kind of flick has never appealed to me. I can appreciate the better ones, with their grand art direction, pretty photography, and clipped British accents, but by in large I don't care for them. Atonement is not exactly an exception, but it's a film I admire, even slightly respect, even though that yen and passion isn't burning deep inside me. It's a pretty film, well presented and mounted, directed with impeccable precision by Joe Wright, director of the only Jane Austen film I actually like in 2005's Pride & Prejudice, but save for a few really good performances and slight tweaks in stuffy refinement (it's a bit more sexual than I thought), it's mostly all surface, pretty surface. And so when the classy decorum cools down, much of all we the audience are left is Dario Marianelli's sublime clickity clack score to smooth out narrative uneasiness.
As scripted by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), based on the acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement starts out at the illustrious Tallis estate during a crisp summer season. The grounds are hallowed and stately. Eldest daughter Cecilla (Keira Knightley) basks in the summer heat seemingly spending much of her time jumping into the fountain, while younger sis Briony (Saoirse Ronan), at the tender age of 13 is a tightly wound playwright. The early scenes of Atonement are easily the strongest in the film, as it firmly establishes these two sisters and the one man who they both secretly covet-- Robbie (played with ample charisma by James McAvoy in a pure movie star performance), the son of a servant who's jonesing for Cecilla's affections. It's established right from the start that Briony is feverishly jealous of this, which leads to an event that alters all three of their lives and promptly ends childhood for young Briony. A crime is committed and out of jealously and a Shakespearean (if quite naughty) bit of misunderstanding Briony wrongfully accuses Robbie. End of Act One.
Years pass as Robbie is imprisoned and then sent off to fight in World War II as a plea bargain, and the love between him and Cecilla surges in that very common The English Patient\Cold Mountain romantic kind of way. This is where Atonement becomes a bit bland, and a tad undernourished. Wright obviously envisioned this sweeping romantic epic, hoping to reduce the audience into butter and melt, but there's an awkwardness to way he stages Robbie's war scenes-- they come across as reverent, but inert. There's a five minute Steadicam tour of war set on the beach from the British retreat from Durkirk that's impressive but disconnecting in it's showy, look-at-me showing the horror of war, yet look how pretty it is.
It's a lot more interesting back on the home front where Briony, now as a young adult played with absolute conviction and taciturn solemnity by Romola Garai, beginning to realize the consequences of her sins tries to atone by becoming a nurse as well, just like big sister. Garai, unlike anybody else in the film, is so natural and unglamorous that her quietly pitched Briony presents the reality of silly girl's actions hindering a young woman's development. She's the truth in Atonement, while Knightley is prettily posing as a throwback to 1940s glamour, naturally with a cigarette in toe-- her tortured scene in the green dress waving good to love feels almost iconic because it's utter movie acting, not that there's anything wrong with that. End of Act Two. The third is a mystery, one I won't reveal, but it involves a modern day Briony (now played by Vanessa Redgrave), who apparently has had the same hairdo since the age of 13, again it's Marianelli's score that was at the forefront of my mind.
In the end, Atonement is not at a bad, actually in lots of places in quite good, but it has a sort of literary nonchalance about it-- as in well that's pretty good, and romantic, with pretty set pieces, okay...um, yeah I've pretty much forgotten most of it by now. B