Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McEvoy, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Harriet Walter, Benedict Cumberbatch
Running Time: 120 min.
***1/2 (out of ****)
There’s no movie I’ve been less interested in seeing in the past year than Atonement. When it was announced as a Best Picture nominee back in January I laughed and rolled my eyes. I thought that despite making riskier choices in recent years this nomination was just further proof the average age of an Academy member is 80. Just from the trailer I could tell it was one of those films based a highbrow novel any English professor would love. On paper, it would seem Atonement combines all the elements of every pretentious art house film into one inglorious package. It’s a sweeping period costume drama romance, based on an acclaimed novel. And, of course, it’s set against the backdrop of war.
My mind was made up. This was one of the few benefits of not being in school anymore. I wasn’t going to watch or review this film unless I would be receiving a letter grade. But I eventually broke down. And at its conclusion I was the one who needed to atone…for my close-mindedness.It’s fun to compare the endings of the Best Picture nominees from 2007. Michael Clayton’s was the most exciting. Juno’s was the sweetest. No Country For Old Men’s was the most frustrating. But Atonement’s is the bravest. I’d call it a "twist ending" but that would be inaccurate since the
beauty of it is in how it follows the narrative course set from the very beginning. We just never bothered to notice. It
causes you to go back to reevaluate every scene and every word spoken
in the film and view it within a completely different context. At the
beginning I nearly giggled at how much the script expected me to care about these
young lovers and the seemingly contrived situation they found themselves
in. By the end, it's no laughing matter.
It’s 1935 England and 13-year-old aspiring writer Briony Tallis (Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) watches as her older sister Cecilia (Knightley) develops deep feelings for Robbie Turner (James McEvoy), a visiting Cambridge student and son of their family’s housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn). Harboring a bit of a crush on Robbie and feeling overprotective of her sister, Briony intercepts a dirty letter from Robbie to Cecilia. An unintentionally humorous aspect of this letter is that the filthy word used in it would cause just as much controversy today as it did in 1935. Just ask Jane Fonda. It’s nice to know some things never change. I don’t know if the word choice was lifted directly from Ian McEwan’s novel or was the invention of screenwriter Christopher Hampton but it makes the letter and the film resonate a lot more with contemporary audiences than it would have otherwise. Because of this we feel the force of its impact as much as the characters. Briony’s discovery snowballs into serious accusations against Robbie of a violent crime.
The first hour of Atonement is emotionally involving at the most visceral level, but is also frustrating without having at least one viewing behind you to fully understand its purpose. It plays, Rashomon-style, with time and perception, often giving us a second view of the same event only a scene after it just occurred. One of the more brilliant aspects of this device is that it presents doubt as to whether Briony’s actions are motivated by jealousy, misinterpretation, or the fact that she’s just 13 and has no idea what she’s doing. Or could it be some combination of all those? Those answers become much clearer by the end, which only enhances follow-up viewings of the film. Initially though, it does cause some confusion. We’re also treated to the least erotic sex scene of the year, during which I was actually looking at my watch waiting for it to end. I also wasn’t sure whether I should be more concerned for the safety of Knightley or the bookcase.
In a risky move that alienated audiences the film pulls a Full Metal Jacket in its second half and shifts from an emotional human-interest story into a war film. It’s four years later and Robbie is serving in the Second World War in France while Cecilia and Briony (now being played by Romola Garai) are now both nurses. It’s within this section where we’re given an amazing 5-minute plus unbroken tracking shot as Robbie and his comrades navigate the Dunkirk beach during the evacuation.
It’s a scene some believe was thrown in for no other reason other than to win a Best Cinematography Oscar. Let’s suppose it was. That doesn’t make it any less beautiful to look, any less of a technical achievement or undercut the fact that it fits perfectly within the context of the story. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey didn’t win that Oscar but you could argue he should have, and not only on the basis of that one scene. The whole film is a visual postcard. Dario Marianelli’s musical score is punctuated by the clanging of a typewriter, which will no doubt annoy many. I thought it worked though and added much tension, especially in the latter stages of the film where it’s needed most.
As I watched it I had all but written off the World War II section of the film as tedious and meandering, but only after the final credits rolled did I realize it’s flawless. It’s here where I have to be very careful not to give anything away. Without spoiling anything, all I can say is that the story turns over on itself in the final minutes. How we thought we were viewing things and the perspective we thought we were viewing it from changes…and it changes brilliantly. Just when you think you have the story pegged it takes a sharp, unexpected detour and ends up being about something far deeper than you imagined it would be. The film actually turns out to be about what its title suggests it is in the most literal sense of the word.
As involving as the first hour was I can’t say I cared about any of the characters and was puzzled that the film would ask me to feel anything for them, much less root for Robbie and Cecilia’s young lust. Robbie comes off as a horny pervert while Cecilia mostly acts like a complete bitch to whom the world owes a favor. Ironically, early on I thought the most likeable was Briony who at best made an awful mistake and at worst was just a jealous kid. In those final minutes I can’t tell you how much my opinion of all three characters and the entire film changed as the wind was taken out of me with a sucker-punch to the gut.
I had to backtrack in my mind and re-examine everything I had witnessed up until that point. What I thought were flaws in the direction and script were actually subtle, brilliant strokes of genius painted by Wright and Hampton. Supposedly, they didn’t veer far at all from the source material and it that’s true than not only is McEwan one hell of a novelist, but Wright deserves credit for not giving into studio temptation and managing to retain the essence of the work.
The acting all-around ranges from fine to excellent, with a couple of performances going even beyond that. Knightley definitely fits the part of Cecilia but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that any number of other actresses could have stepped in and played the role with no great harm done to the film. James McEvoy, however, is irreplaceable. After being forced to take a backseat to Forrest Whitaker’s Oscar nominated turn in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland he’s in the driver’s seat here and carries the middle section of the film with a confident, yet sensitive performance. Saoirse Ronan earns her Best Supporting Actress nomination in a role that’s a lot tougher than it first appears, while Vanessa Redgrave has a small but VERY important part late in the film that I wouldn’t dare give away.
The great, criminally overlooked supporting performance comes from Romola Garai as the older Briony. When she first appears onscreen we just know she’s Briony. Sure she physically resembles the younger version but that’s nothing hair and make-up can’t take care of. That’s not how we know. We know because Garai makes us FEEL it with her presence. She enters relatively late in the game but the entire story rests on the handful of scenes she has. Wright wisely doesn’t have her attempt to mimic Ronan’s performance from earlier but create a Briony of her own, one transformed and matured into a different person from the events that occurred in the first hour. Because Garai conveys that so subtly is why I think the performance has flown under the radar. Still, I’m scratching my head trying to figure out how she wasn’t nominated. It could very well be the best acting work in the film.
Regret can be among the most powerful themes explored in motion pictures mainly because it can be one of the deepest feelings in life. You may remember a little movie called Citizen Kane managed to navigate the topic pretty well. Like that film, Atonement plays with the ideas of perception and memory. Similarly, the full brunt of its emotional power is contained in the final minutes. There are definitely worse films to be compared to and it’s very fitting that a movie about the power of storytelling should have such an unforgettable and emotionally resonant final chapter.
If the ending has a problem it’s that it’s so well written and powerful that I don’t know what kind of a film we’d have without it. Likely a far inferior one. But the ending is here and the movie has to be judged accordingly. While this probably wouldn’t top my list of the year’s best films it’s certainly more than worthy of its 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. And if I went in with this much of a predisposed bias toward the material and liked it I can’t even imagine how much fans of period romances will love it. You are taken to school here…but in the best possible way. When it was over I actually felt as if I learned something more about great filmmaking and screenwriting. If you think you know exactly what you’ll be getting from Atonement, think again. It’s not THAT type of movie. It’s so much more