- Joe Wright
- Reviewed by
- Gon Curiel a.k.a. Groucho
- Review date
- Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Itís exquisite to see Saoirse Ronan play Briony Tallis so appreciatively. Itís even hard to believe that such a young girl could grasp the emotions going on in her characterís 13-year-old head. Briony confuses young love and jealousy with the need to destroy and mixes them into one and the same and never once calculates the great injustice that can be provoked. Sheís a young writer who takes herself seriously but she has never seen an adult consider her a brooding talent, and since her potential has been undermined by her elders she has a need to prove herself. That canít be done through her first finished play, a tribute to her returning brother to be debuted in front of his eyes the night of his arrival. The cause of this interruption is jealousy that her crush, Robbie, the son of the manorís landlady, and her sister, Cecilia, appear to have what she considers an unnatural relationship. This discovery is quite unfortunate for the three of them. Briony misunderstands, but I would say she understands quite well and just canít see. She concocts a new play in her head, this time starring real people, and executes the climax by sentencing Robbie to prison and crushing her sisterís feelings. That she finds the tools to do this is only circumstantial; that she has the need to play god is whatís alarming and haunting.
The period is delicious in this section of the movie. The setting, a 1935 English manor, is perfectly realized through meticulous art direction and fine photography. The actors are nicely in tune with their time and place and orbit Saoirse like planets around the sun. Dario Marianelliís potent tunes mix seamlessly with keys from the young girlís typing machine to achieve an atmosphere thatís all Briony and all horror. Passion in the form of Robbie and Cecilia is achieved deliciously when seen from their eyes and appallingly when seen from Brionyís. The climax of this act is so strong that one is compelled to wonder if the rest of the film will match this power.
It does not. Once the sin has been committed, years pass without our feeling their intensity. The leap forward in time diminishes the impact of what was so carefully constructed. The Second World War has come and the three main characters are in it: Robbie as a prisoner turned unwilling soldier, and Cecilia and Briony as nurses. Robbie and Cecilia struggle to keep the flame of their romance alive despite years of separation and much suffering on both sides. Briony, now played by a much less intense Romola Garai, intends to kill the ghosts of her wrongdoing without success. Melancholy overcomes the impact of war which results in much of this segment to be boring. An outstanding continuous take of the Dunkirk evacuation is interesting on account of its cinematic triumph, much embellished by visual effects but no less effective, a triumph of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, but it slows down the already decaying pace and hurts the storyís impact almost to a point of no return.
Letís go back to the first act, now that I mention obstacles of pace. A couple of scenes are seen from the perspective of Brionyís and then from the real perspective, that of Cecilia and Robbie. The scenes are actually repeated to achieve this goal. I will admit that things were seen differently, especially the first time, but even while this scene was running and I was loving the movie so far, I found it off-putting. Why repeat the whole thing only to show us a different point of view? There wasnít much difference in what was happening anyway, so Iíd say it could have been done once and played from both sides to achieve a better effect. At the time I thought it wasnít too bad, letís go on with the show. But in the middle of the second act I confirmed that the direction and editing of these scenes was not up to the task.
What happens next is the atonement, which is explained in the third and by far least powerful act starring Vanessa Redgrave as an old Briony, now a novelist. The outcome of the revelation contained in this scene is what determines the filmís success; some love it, I hated it. To me, there was little truth and even less sense in what was explained. The impact never reached me.
Thereís another capital problem in Atonement which is what really marked a difference for me, something that changed my whole appreciation. Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are likable people but theyíre not riveting here. Neither is strong enough to summon a passion that survives prison, war and years. I just couldnít believe for instance that she would give up her accommodated life and future for him; his reactions seemed much more credible but still werenít easy to sympathize with. Theyíre weak leads of a love story, and even though that usually happens there isnít much to atone for it in the rest of what this film packs. Much as the three leads, I couldnít stop thinking about that day in 1935. And the same as old Briony, I never found anything afterwards powerful enough to create a balance.
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Other reviews of Atonement (2007): Morris