January 17, 2008

Atonement review

Matt: Four Stars

Length: 123 min


You can only imagine the truth.
Torn apart by betrayal. Separated by war. Bound by love.
Joined by love. Separated by fear. Redeemed by hope.

Précis: Strong and visually stunning adaptation of Ian McEwan’s famous novel about the consequences of fiction and honesty in human lives.

Review by Matt:

In reality, it is probably often that we make decisions based on deep and secret feelings, about which we are not always completely honest, even to ourselves. Atonement is a story about one such decision and its consequences on three lives.

The fateful action is taken by 13 year old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) as she enjoys summer at her family’s English manor in the heady days between the World Wars. Briony is aware of a raw yet undeveloped romance between her older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy from The Last King of Scotland), the aspirational son of a servant. This messily ripening romance is first channelled to the audience through the adolescent perspective of Briony. Briony’s maturity is also ripening, but the romance is complex and sexual and she doesn’t understand it. To confound matters, Briony catches the events from a deceptive angle – revealed to us when the film replays key scenes from another perspective. Add in some schoolgirl-crush jealously and a subtle infusion of class, and Briony has a lot to process for a child.

The scenes at the manor are fascinating and tense, and director Joe Wright (who also directed the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley) and his cast easily transport us to pre World-War II England with its idiosyncrasies (although as a downside, Keira Knightley sometimes speaks as fast as she is thin – this mumbling is apparently a mannerism of the period). The facade of a picturesque summer eventually dissolves completely when a criminal scandal occurs at the manor. In its wake, Briony finds herself with the chance to monumentally influence the lives of Cecelia and Robbie. As she takes her decision (which I will leave you to watch) her exact level of honesty, foresight and responsibility is unclear. But the consequences flow on.

The remainder of the film occurs six years later in a much grimmer world. It focuses on Cecelia’s and Robbie’s struggle to fulfil their love while Cecelia works as a nurse in London and Robbie serves in France amidst the horror of World War II. The French war scenes are black and beautiful, but we sit much further away than the dialogue-driven characterisation of the first act. The cinematography is exquisite and the pinnacle is an incredible and atmospheric long-take of the Dunkirk beach saturated in a thousand and one images of war life. It’s an audacious set piece reminiscent of the staging and technical prowess of Russian Ark (but with nothing as sweat-inducing as the atmospheric long-takes in the recent film Children of Men) and it’s successful at evoking the moods of war in merely a few minutes.

As the title suggests, the real significance of this film is its theme of atonement. Briony has grown to a 19-year old woman (now played by Romola Garai). She has a new perspective on her childhood choices and she longs for penance. Atonement the film, which is based upon Ian McEwan’s popular novel, is fairly subtle about this aspect. It dedicates most of its length to articulating the consequences of Briony’s decision and to fleshing the lives of its three primary characters. This detail is important though, as the film eventually encourages us to reflect on all the events, so that most of the colour blooms later in our heads. Atonement is a film that pulls us between feeling confidence and disenchantment about people’s capacity for honesty and atonement. The revelations are sometimes quietly devastating, not just in the main story, but also in the glimpses we see of other characters.

As a piece of cinema, Atonement emits excellence. It looks beautiful, it is finely acted by its leads and it works smartly with its source material. Maybe my capacity for reflection is lacking, but I feel Atonement’s primary theme could have been realised more powerfully in the cinematic incarnation. It is still powerful, don’t get me wrong. But the thousands of words of the novel can paint its theme with an intricate sensitivity that is very difficult to capture in 120 minutes of film. Here, the drama is engaging, the spectacle is exquisite – it is great to watch. But some of that comes from trading off thematic depth, when keeping it could have given Atonement a truly impressive potency.


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