Mark Reviews Movies

ATONEMENT

2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Joe Wright

Cast: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Harriet Walter, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality)

Running Time: 2:10

Release Date: 12/7/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Whenever I have problems with a movie adaptation of a beloved book, it's not too long before people tell me the old chestnut: The book was better. When people inevitably say that about Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, I will have to take their word for it, but I will inherently believe them. The story, which progresses over about 70 years in three different sections with different character focuses in each, probably works quite well as a novel. Indeed, the first two acts of this star-crossed love story are completely involving. The first is a self-contained account of an imaginative young girl whose imagination gets the best of an innocent; the second is an unabashedly romantic tale of unrequited love finally fulfilled.

The third, which switches perspective so suddenly as to make us curious exactly whose story this is really supposed to be, just becomes too much. I'm sure it works on the page, but on screen, it gets clunky, especially in the epilogue, which hardly packs the intended emotional punch as a result. Director Joe Wright gave us a fine version of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice a couple years ago, but this adaptation of another British romance isn't on par.

The story begins in England in 1935. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is writing a play to be performed on the event of her brother's homecoming. The family has arrived at the Tallis estate for the event, but Briony is most concerned whether or not her brother will like her play. She asks her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and her servants' son Robbie (James McAvoy), whom Briony looks at longingly—even though he has eyes for Cecilia. Briony witnesses the two at a fountain, although what at first appears to be a suspicious event turns out to be completely harmless. Briony doesn't see it that way.

Neither does she see the real letter of apology Robbie intended to give Cecilia; she only sees the one where he vulgarly describes where he wants to kiss her. And when Briony catches Cecilia and Robbie in the library together, she is thoroughly convinced that Robbie is a sex maniac. We know what has actually happened, and it's sweet, not shifty. So when Briony witnesses a crime on the estate grounds, her mind immediately shifts to Robbie, and with the help of her testimony, the son of a servant who wanted to become a doctor is taken away by the police.

This first act is a tight piece of storytelling about the way Briony's flights of fancy become the fodder for harmful gossip mongering and a concise look at class structure and the prejudices that arise from it. The second act takes place fours years after, with Robbie serving in the Army in Northern France and Cecilia nursing the wounded. Before Robbie ships out, the two meet and pick up where they left off that fateful night. She catches him up on the family. Briony is now a nurse, too, as a penance for what she did, Cecilia decides.

There are more sweet moments for the two: He chases after the bus she's on just to tell her he loves her; she gives him a photo of a cottage they can live in after the war is over. It's an effective piece of romantic melodrama set against the horrors of war. Robbie sees the corpses of women strewn about in a forest. He arrives in Dunkirk after the battle, where 300,000 soldiers wait for ships to take them home, to observe soldiers shooting horses and to overhear talk that the wounded will be left behind. The whole setting is revealed in a spectacular tracking shot set to a choir of soldiers singing a traditional hymn.

Cecilia and Robbie exchange letters. Robbie sees a couple kissing on the silver screen while in Dunkirk and dreams of his all-too scant memories with Cecilia. The movie accomplishes true attachment to these two, and then the narrative throws us for yet another loop. The third act has an 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) as a nurse, encountering the aftereffects of war on young men her age. In one quite effective scene, she talks to a young man who thinks he knows her, and Briony tries to comfort him till his end.

She also attempts reconciliation with Cecilia and Robbie and discovers that the crime she glimpsed might not have been what she thought. We learn of Briony's childhood affections for the man she would later condemn to prison, and Christopher Hampton's screenplay cannot achieve the level of commitment to Briony's story that it has to Cecilia and Robert's. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Briony's story that is most important to the central thematic implications of the narrative's scope, but we don't realize it until the epilogue, which features Vanessa Redgrave reminiscing about the past on television.

The last scene, set in the present, is meant to solidify the impact of Briony's story, but her tale of regret is lost amid what's come before it. It's something that works on an intellectual level (the unreliable narrator device, though, feels forced on any wavelength), but Atonement isn't trying for the brain but for the heart.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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