Atonement (2007) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for disturbing war images, brief nudity, language and some sexuality
Running Time: 118 min.
Cast: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Harriet Walter, Brenda Blethyn
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan)
Review published March 2, 2008
Beautiful to look at, wonderful to listen to, and, at least for me, difficult to really like, Atonement succeeds in being a work of art, at least in its technical qualities, but it's not the sort of movie that has me anxious for a repeat viewing experience anytime soon. Based on the acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan, the film draws upon the dreamy Oscar-winning score (full of typewriter clicks and other sounds) by Dario Marianelli (V for Vendetta, I Capture the Castle) with lush imagery from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (World Trade Center, Sahara) to make it aesthetically engaging, especially as the borderline surreal tale morphs into a harrowing war film and tale of tragedy that eventually ends with a premise that challenges us to question the reality and fantasy of everything that the film has developed thus far.
The story starts in 1935, with young and precocious Briony Tallis (Ronan, I Could Never Be Your Woman), just having finished writing a play, trying to put together a small performance with her friends. She spies her older sister, Cecilia (Knightley, POTC 3), engaging with flirtations (and later, more than that) with Robbie Turner (McAvoy, Becoming Jane), a gardener by trade, and the son of the estate's cook, Grace (Blethyn, On a Clear Day). Though she can't hear the conversation, Briony's active imagination fills in the blanks, later becoming much more fanciful when she happens to open a note Robbie has asked her to deliver to Cecilia. Confused by newly pubescent feelings, Briony impulsively despises the situation brewing between Cecilia and Robbie, pointing the finger at the young man when something heinous eventually does occur, using the lustful note as proof of his perversions. The actions have repercussions on the lives of all involved, as we follow them through their later days during the ensuing war.
We've seen a share of films filled with flashbacks that have us question whether they are actually occurring or whether they are the suspect fiction of an active mind. The first film I remember seeing in this mold (not counting The Wizard of Oz) is Alain Resnais' 1976 film, Providence, whereby an elderly man suffering from physical and mental afflictions looks back upon his life, but we aren't sure if everything is real or merely his own choice of remembrances, encroached upon by his own dementia. The most recent is the acclaimed film Pan's Labyrinth, which had the fanciful story of a young girl whose observations may or may not be of her own making. Interestingly, all three films have a war story at their core, with relatives and surreal developments that are ambiguous in what they represent. These kinds of stories are challenging, and certainly Atonement is a film of merit, and yet, there is just something quite distancing about the film itself that makes it feel slow, drawn out, and stagnantly unemotional. As the characters find themselves in peril, we're still admiring the technical aspects of the movie, rather than being properly engaged by the characters and their plights except on a keenly intellectual level. How can we ever get to know these characters as people when the director is so busy showing off what he can do?
There is still much to admire about Atonement, even if it is so difficult to like, but the one thing I truly loved is the use of the aforementioned score, in which a typewriter becomes one of the musical instruments, suggesting that what we're seeing is not reality, but a fictional account of one through the mind of an author. Does the appearance of the click-clacks signify the parts that are fiction, or are they merely used for ambience? That is a matter of interpretation that merits analysis, and may be the one reason I might ever choose to subject myself to some of the unpleasantness of the film again. Only then will I discover whether this analysis of fact vs. fiction is really just a conflict between narrative brilliance vs. intellectual tedium. As of my first viewing, I've one foot planted firmly on both sides of the argument.
©2008 Vince Leo