The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, February 28, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Atonement

Full review behind the jump


: Joe Wright
: Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan
: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster
: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saorise Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn

I’d never fully considered before
Atonement how imagining can be a violent act. The internal world of the mind can indeed inflict damage in the real world. The film, based on Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel, has the surfaces of a romance, and a triumphant one at that – it’s rare to see a piece that can incorporate both the splendid and the intimate, the scenic and the sexy. It’s never failed to be understood how imagining can be erotic. But imagination is ultimately more fundamental than love in this picture, and as such it is not going to give you the easy conclusions or comfortable themes of a traditional love story.

I find it no coincidence that three of this year’s five Best Picture Oscar nominees, Atonement along with There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, feature shocks in the final scenes that directly challenge the viewers’ presuppositions, that unveil truths that had been hidden in plain sight on the screen. These are not plot twists in the conventional sense, they are provocative dares against the very nature of narrative finality. We can wish with all our might that some karmic magic will drop every peg in its proper hole and give us the relief of new equilibrium, but this film reminds us with aching poignancy that resolution is illusory, and there’s only one real way for a life to reach “The End”.

We begin at an elegant British country house, and a girl on the brink of adolescence named Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan). There’s a feverish will in this girl – we can spy it in the way she hammers at her typewriter, composing stories and dramas, and in the way she marches around the house, turning each corner at a determinedly perfect right angle on her mission to distribute her latest opus to the family, the guests, the servants. Does she, with her plainer features, her awkward attempts to integrate with the grown-up world, feel an unspoken spite for her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), who is through with her adolescence and in all visible respects a poised, stunningly beautiful young woman? Does that, mixed with her possessive, desperate crush on the gardener’s son Robbie (James McAvoy), create a potion of poisoned thought that has her misinterpreting events she glimpses through windows and around corners?

The screenplay, by Tony- and Oscar-winning Dangerous Liaisons scribe Christopher Hampton, must deftly play with time and perspective, showing us what Briony sees, then backtracking to replay them from the full perspective of the participants. It is the only way we can understand the strange tension between Cecilia and Robbie, who was born low but has become educated and ambitious thanks to the generosity of his masters. And it shows us how a little girl, head surging with feelings, might tease hints and suppositions and misunderstandings into a narrative that makes all-too shocking sense to her.

And on one fateful weekend she does just that, convincing first herself, then her family, then police, that she has seen something terrible. The tragedy for us is that we can divine both what has actually happened, and the defiant path by which Briony reaches her own conclusion, one that sets everyone’s life in a new direction.

We flash forward into World War II to catch up with the results, and we see the grown-up Briony (Romola Garai), now in training as a war nurse, still battering away at her keyboard, still thinking back to that night. She understands now what she has done, what her imagination has wrought. But can imagination be a healing act as well – as when she plays along with a dying soldier who has mistaken her for his beloved?

Painful real life has intruded, with Cecilia estranged from her family, and with Robbie an enlisted man in France, struggling to find his way to safety as the Nazis fill the continent. He reaches the historic mass evacuation at Dunkirk, and we watch him explore the horrible spectacle of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, stranded on a beach. It’s done in a long unbroken take that ranks among the most accomplished I’ve seen – only as it pulled back to take in the whole picture did I understand its purpose. He is in purgatory, sent there by a lie.

Director Joe Wright broke into feature film from BBC minis with the excellent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and the chief virtues of that picture – sumptuous visuals, red-blooded passion, and keen casting – are each enhanced here. Ronan gives a fiercely-committed performance as the young Briony, while McAvoy graduates to leading man dash, and Knightley embodies the dawning realization of love, and the hunger it creates once realized.

And while the landscapes are grand in front of DP Seamus McGarvey’s camera, it’s the small gestures that move the heart. How potent, how packed with luscious promise, is the moment of a woman lifting her foot out of her high-heeled shoe; how staggering is the sight of a man trying to steady his hand while stirring a cup of tea across from the woman for whom he burns.

Memories gain color and power in the reliving of them. The film of Atonement contains moments that you will relive in your mind, over and over, for their sensuousness, for their sadness, and for the troubling way they avoid any conclusion you could seize on to put them away. This must be the fate of Briony, whose punishment for the richness of her imagination is that it will be fixed on these memories for the rest of her days.


  • I must compliment you on your wonderful review. One of the best I've read about one of the best films I've seen in my life.
    "Atonement" is a masterpiece.

    By Anonymous Cris.A, at 10:48 PM  

  • Thank you. I'm much better at this when a movie gives me so much to talk about.

    By Blogger Nick, at 11:27 PM  

  • Atonement looked and felt a lot like Pride and Prejudice, impeccable setting, acting and dialogue. A bit depressing toward the end, but over all very well done.

    i wonder: Is Briony's vocabulary typical for British 13 year olds?

    By Anonymous patrick, at 2:33 PM  

  • I found Briony's vocabulary to be precisely discordant - both uncomfortable with reality and reflective of a fierce will to alter that reality towards her fantasies. The scene where she's trying to enlist the other children in her play demonstrates just how difficult she finds it to relate to people of her own age, even as she looks down on them and fancies herself more of an adult. Christopher Hampton's screenplay illuminated her thought processes to perfection.

    By Blogger Nick, at 12:03 PM  

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