Image source. Copyright Universal Pictures, 2007.
At first glance, Atonement looks like a solid movie. The acting, editing, score, and pacing are all marvelously compelling. Then we pass the halfway point, and everything abruptly falls apart. Director Joe Wright, in a boneheaded decision to try and make the non-grand grand, ends up shooting the entire movie straight off the rails. The final, bungled result only leaves you wondering why he chose to mess with all the good stuff he had going.
Based on the bestselling Ian McEwan novel, Atonement takes us into 1930s England, a time when the aristocratic, Victorian customs of the 19th century are gasping their last, defiant breaths. Cecilia (Keira Knightley), a member of the wealthy Tallis family, discovers in the heat of summer that she has feelings for Robbie (James McAvoy), her classmate at Oxford and the son of her family’s head maid. These aren’t feelings she finds easy to express, since they’ve been good friends since childhood, and the gap between their social standings makes everything all the more awkward. But after a series of tense encounters, one evening, the two of them find themselves alone in a hidden corner of the Tallis family’s summer estate. Over the course of the night, all barriers come down; their relationship morphs into a torrid, passionate romance that seems to promise all the emotional fulfillment they both so eagerly seek.
The only obstacle? Cecilia’s sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a brooding, bored-to-death adolescent with a gift for writing. Believing herself to be a kind of holy protector of her family from all sources of evil and indecency, Briony witnesses all the said awkward encounters between Robbie and Cecilia and convinces herself that Robbie intends to rape Cecilia. No matter that the reality is far more benign: in Briony’s young, see-all-evil eyes, Robbie’s innocent advances are demons to be vanquished, Cecilia’s reciprocation forced submission to be resisted. Her dislike of Robbie only deepens when, on the same evening she catches Cecilia and Robbie in the act, her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) abruptly vanishes from the dinner table and, after hours of frantic searching, is found raped in the middle of the woods. During the family’s extensive outdoors search, only Briony manages to catch a brief glimpse of the rape. It’s only a brief glimpse, but it’s all Briony’s impressionable mind needs. Who else could the culprit be, after all, but the guy who clearly also wanted to rape her sister?
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” proclaimed Strother Martin back in Cool Hand Luke. As with Paul Newman, so with James McAvoy – for both, misunderstanding creates nothing but trouble. Convinced the man she saw in the woods was Robbie, Briony rattles on him to the police. In spite of a lack of evidence against him, Robbie gets sent to prison. And from then on, the inextricably intertwined stories of his, Cecilia, and Briony’s lives aren’t ever the same. This first half of the movie impeccably weaves together all these events to create a sinister, chilling atmosphere. In particular, Saoirse Ronan gives an outstanding portrayal of a precocious youngster who senses that something about the eerily placid, monotonous summer environment around her just can’t be right. Her steely gaze and walk create a quietly menacing image of someone prowling in the shadows, lurking until she finds the perfect case to demonstrate her power on, the perfect way to live up to her mental self-image as an omnipotent savior. This, combined with the exceptional cinematography and editing, makes us feel that something about this supposed countryside paradise just has to give. Wright’s back-and-forth method of portraying Briony and Cecilia’s differing perspectives does an amazing job of showcasing how, with the right mindset and viewpoint, harmless get-togethers can easily turn into dangerous sexual encounters. The atmosphere is so intensely drawn that at some points, Briony’s mental musings seem to physically darken the screen.
And then…the second half. We move away from the English countryside into the hustle-bustle of World War II, in which Robbie enlists in the Army and both Cecilia and Briony work as nurses. In the sweep of this bloody historical event, Wright loses the environment he created so painstakingly in the first part. Maybe it’s what the idea of portraying the biggest, most consequential war of the 20th century does to you, but Wright’s all-out attempts to convey the toll of combat don’t work. He spends a fair amount of footage on panoramic shots that seem straight out of Saving Private Ryan – soldiers banked on Dunkirk, images of wounded men straggling into hospitals, and civilians scrambling down into the Underground. If we were watching Saving Private Ryan, indeed, this might all be moving. But not here. For a story focused on the testy intimate relations among three people over the course of the 20th century, said SPR mode makes zilch sense. True, Wright is basing everything off a novel where the events of World War II do play an important role. But in the book, McEwan at least always kept the focus on the characters’ internal emotions and thought processes; the change of setting did not mean a change in texture. Internal emotions aren’t easy to convey in a movie, but Wright certainly could have been a lot less melodramatic than he ends up being. The core themes of broken love and dangerous childhood naivete vanish, and it doesn’t look like he even notices or cares.
Then, just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, the ending Wright chooses is precisely the reason why English teachers rant about “show, don’t tell.” After an hour of zigzagging through the maze of World War II, Wright fast-forwards a few decades and, in an attempt to tidy things up, decides to return to the original premise. But the way he does it – an aged Briony, now a successful novelist, “tells all” in a totally-not-conveniently-placed TV interview – is the most artless, blatantly lazy way to end a story. Not to mention completely different from the ending in the book, which has a far more satisfying and thoughtful resolution. (Why movies always insist on removing the best parts of the books will always remain a mystery to me.) If Wright felt tired and was looking to conserve some energy, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble. He ought to have just made the last part a bunch of explanatory paragraphs and a big “The End!” sign, and it would’ve had the exact same effect as the current ending. Lame, letdown, lousy – take your pick, because they could all describe what happens here perfectly.
Everything about Atonement screams a great movie. The excellent book. Top-notch performers. Fine cinematography. If only Wright had the mind to make it all work. His lurching attempts to combine all kinds of effects and atmospheres into two hours smack of clumsiness and wasted potential. Instead of being a moving love story, the movie plays out like a staircase plummeting towards rock bottom, where each subsequent section sends the plot and feel crashing down yet another level. Fans of Knightley, McAvoy, Ronan, and McEwan deserve far better.
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan
Running Time: 123 minutes
Produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Christopher Hampton
Based on the 2001 Ian McEwan novel of the same name.