‘Atonement’ (2007)

Was this worth $10 and my 2 hours?

I confess publicly, now, up-front to a small obsession with Keira Knightley. I’ve seen all but two of her films and regardless of the quality, QED ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,’ I’ve found her to be effective at a bare minimum in all and stunning in some of the roles she’s played. That said, while she acquits herself quite well her role as Cecilia Tallis in ‘Atonement’ isn’t really that much of a role.

Billed as a tragic love story, this film is more an exercise in adaptation for all concerned: Can we take what looks to be a sprawling, detailed book and convey its nuances on screen? Whether or not director Joe Wilson (‘Pride & Prejudice’) and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (‘The Quiet American’) did Ian McEwan’s novel justice, I do not know. What I do know is that this film doesn’t live up to the promise of the trailer.

The film is brilliantly executed and photographed. The early, pastoral scenes of the Tallis estate stand in vivid, lush contrast to the grim desperation of the evacuation at Dunkirk as World War II serves as the back drop for the second two thirds of the film.

‘Atonement’ poster The period details, from the bathing costumes worn by Cecilia, her brother Leon (Patrick Kennedy), and Leon’s houseguest Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), a chocolate magnate who will play a pivotal role in the separation of Cecilia and Robbie Turner (James McEvoy), to the uniforms worn by the soldiers and the ward nurses, ring so utterly true that it hardly matters whether they are authentic or not. They look the way we have come to expect World War II era Britain to look.

Too, this film makes excellent use of sound: storytelling being an inherent part of the story itself the sound designers choose to make the sound of a typewriter an aural cue in moving the story forward.

What is less brilliantly executed is the promise of deep, abiding drama. This is not ‘Romeo & Juliet’ full of star-crossed lovers and high drama. Yes, it is a story about love thwarted, love denied by the selfish act of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, but more it is a story about guilt and forgiveness, just as the title implies, that is told in such a restrained manner that what drama is inherent in the story rings somehow false like the cubic zirconium among lower quality diamonds. The diamonds are truly worth more but the bright, shiny thing simultaneously catches the eye and leaves you unsatisfied.

Does ‘Atonement’ live up to the base indicator of “was this worth my $10 and my 2 hours?” Only if you walk into the film knowing that you will have to derive your pleasures from the execution of the story, the costumes and the brilliant and deliciously restrained performances of Knightley and McEvoy rather than from the story itself. ‘Atonement’ is not a soapy film at all; you can’t turn your brain off here and expect to be moved, but it is an interesting film if the details matter to you at all.

Rating: ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

What’s good about this film?

  • Beautiful photography
  • Excellent sound design
  • Performances that convey emotion through restraint rather than through hammy chewing of the scenery

For fans of:

  • Merchant/Ivory (‘A Room With A View,’ ‘Howard’s End’)
  • “Brideshead Revisited”
  • “A Passage To India”
  • Anyone who was surprised by the twist in ‘The Crying Game’

I went to film school for this.

Note: This section contains plot spoilers. Read no further if you don’t wish to have the story revealed.

The reality of ‘Atonement’ is that it is too clever for its own good. The central conceit of the narrative is that you are left at the end of the film feeling betrayed by the very narrative trick that makes the film itself possible.

The grand tragedy of ‘Atonement’ is the forceable separation of new lovers Cecilia and Robbie. Some long simmering attraction, which is not adequately explored or explained – Cecilia responds when queried by her sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) about why she and Robbie never talk that they “move in different circles;” later we’re told in conversation that the entire time Cecilia and Robbie were at university Cecilia never spoke with him – yet we’re to believe that one afternoon of subdued flirting would lead these two incredibly proper people to an unplanned sexual tryst in a public room of the main estate house?

And it is this tryst, beautifully filmed and powerfully erotic in its intensity and understatement, this quasi “primal scene,” that is the crux of the narrative. Young Briony, 13 and not fully in command of either her feelings or the damage she can do with them, interrupts this tryst and it is her budding emotions for Robbie that spark her own feelings of betrayal. The false witness she bears against him in the so-called rape of her cousin Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) irrevocably change the course of not only Cecilia’s and Robbie’s lives but Briony’s as well.

We’re treated to Robbie and Cecilia’s reunion after he is released from prison, but before he’s sent to France to fight, after she has cut ties with her family; we’re given a glimpse into what an 18 year-old Briony (Romola Garai) experiences as a trainee ward nurse; we’re shown the horror that Robbie witnesses at Dunkirk and the love he still feels for Cecilia as is evidenced by the thick stack of letters he carries with him as a talisman; we’re shown Briony’s contrite apology to both Cecilia and Robbie, the measures she’s willing to take to atone for her falsehood.

And then the very foundation of the narrative is ripped from under us: the last 10 minutes of the film reveal that Robbie and Cecilia’s happy recoupling after his return from Dunkirk is a fraud, a fiction as devastating to the viewer as Briony’s original lie was to her sister and Robbie.

This lie about Briony’s contrition to Robbie and Cecilia is revealed in the context of an interview with the aged Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) who is on the brink of publishing her 20th novel. The story within a story aspect of this narrative trick reveals directly Briony’s lie of atonement but it also makes the viewer doubt almost every single pivotal event that preceded it in the narrative.

It’s also quite clear from the way in which the principals in this film have been variously nominated for awards that there is a lot of confusion about the narrative: it’s clearly Briony’s story yet Keira Knightley keeps securing Best Actress nominations and Saoirse Ronan Best Supporting Actress noms. We want this to be Cecilia and Robbie’s story but in very many ways it is Briony and Robbie’s story.

This journey down the rabbit hole turns what could have been a good story into an exercise in storytelling. This film shakes the viewers frame of reference by breaking the implicit contract – the film tells a story and the viewer listens and reacts – by making the viewer part of the story, as confused about events as the people we are ostensibly watching. In that way the film itself is as much a lie as the lie the film is about.

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