Rarely has a book sprung so vividly to life, but also worked so enthrallingly in pure movie terms, as with “Atonement,” Brit helmer Joe Wright’s smart, dazzlingly upholstered adaptation of Ian McEwan’s celebrated 2001 novel. Period yarn, largely set in 1930s and ‘40s England, about an adolescent outburst of spite that destroys two lives and crumples a third, preserves much of the tome’s metaphysical depth and all of its emotional power. And as in Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice,” Keira Knightley — echoed by co-thesp James McAvoy –proves every bit as magnetic as the divas of those classic mellers pic consciously references.
Released in Europe next month, and Stateside as a specialty item via Focus in December, pic should reap good returns on the back of positive reviews and figure heavily in upcoming kudo derbies. It proved a popular opener of this year’s Venice fest.
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Where Wright’s debut took a relatively free hand in reworking Jane Austen’s classic in more youthful terms, “Atonement” is immensely faithful to McEwan’s novel, with whole scenes and dialogue seemingly lifted straight from the page in Christopher Hampton’s brisk adaptation.
And where “Pride & Prejudice” took a more realistic approach to Austen’s universe, “Atonement” consciously evokes the acting conventions and romantic cliches of ‘30s/’40s melodramas — from the cut-glass British accents, through Dario Marianelli’s romantic, kinetic score, to the starchy period look.
It’s a gamble that could easily have tilted over into farce. But Wright’s approach is redeemed by his cast and crew, with leads like Knightley, McAvoy and young Irish thesp Saoirse Ronan driving the movie on the performance side and technicians like d.p. Seamus McGarvey and designers Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran providing a richly decorated frame for their heightened playing.
Like the novel, pic plunges straight into the events of a hot summer’s day in rural southeast England, 1935. As 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Ronan) hammers out “The End” on an amateur play to be performed at home, pic succinctly sketches — exactly like the opening of “Pride & Prejudice” — not only the geography of the family manse, but also most of the leading characters in a matter of minutes.
Bracing opening hardly pauses for breath as the first of the day’s cumulative misunderstandings takes place. Briony watches from a bedroom window as her elegant but bored sister, Cecilia (Knightley), spontaneously strips down to her underwear and climbs into a pond to retrieve something for Robbie Turner (McAvoy). Robbie is the housekeeper’s son, who’s been raised almost as part of the family but is forever several social notches below them.
Shocked at her sister’s immodesty, and driven by confused child-adult emotions that are only clarified much later, Briony turns against Robbie. Hardly aware of the consequences, she exploits a stupid, shocking mistake on his part to blacken his name — and separate him from Cecilia by linking him to a crime he never committed.
The ramifications of her childish spite reverberate through the years. After coming out of jail, Robbie finds Cecilia, now working as a nurse in London. But it’s a fleeting visit, as he’s on his way to France to fight in WWII. By 1940, Robbie is one of thousands of soldiers in retreat and en route to Dunkirk, waiting for boats to ship them back to Blighty.Meanwhile, Briony, now 18 (played by Romola Garai), is also working as a nurse, in an attempt to expiate the guilt she now feels about her actions. Briony’s quest for atonement, for the chance of even a meeting with Robbie and Cecilia, fuels the pic’s final, revelatory 45 minutes, which packs one emotional punch after another.
Film’s opening 50 minutes, entirely devoted to that summer’s day, is an immensely assured roller-coaster ride of emotions, social manners and disguised class warfare, peppered with moments of stillness that capture the essence of the novel’s detailed metaphysical background. Most cleverly, on two key occasions, Hampton’s script comes up with a smart cinematic equivalent of the book’s perpetual shuffling with time — simply by replaying a scene, unannounced, from a different perspective and in more detail.
Like the performances themselves, pic is highly worked, a deliberate artifact. But its occasional technical trickery — which reaches an apotheosis in the Dunkirk evacuation, captured in a jaw-dropping, four-minute Steadicam shot worthy of Claude Lelouch in its human detail — prepares the audience for the even larger twists that make up the yarn’s final third.
Where the movie disappoints is in not conveying the sheer enormity and petty viciousness of the “crime” Briony commits — and the way in which the family (except Cecilia) closes ranks against the once-favored outsider. Here and elsewhere more breathing space would have helped: “Atonement” is one of those rare movies that feels too short rather than too long, and would have come home comfortably at 135 or 140 minutes.
With the charismatic Knightley in what is technically the book’s subsidiary female role, Briony’s character is a tad shortchanged. Especially after Ronan’s strong showing, Garai’s rather dull, unconvincing adult Briony doesn’t help redress the balance: In her one scene opposite Knightley and McAvoy, Garai just doesn’t hold the screen.
Other perfs are strong down the line, with vets like Vanessa Redgrave (as the older Briony), Brenda Blethyn (Robbie’s working-class mom) and Harriet Walter (Briony’s mother) in little more than cameos. Of the younger cast, both Juno Temple and Benedict Cumberbatch impress as Briony’s sexually aware cousin and her brother’s smug business friend, respectively.
But it’s Knightley and McAvoy’s film, with both showing impressive star poise and physical elan. As the more controlled Cecilia, Knightley hints at the rebel behind the upper-middle-class mask, while McAvoy shows a sheer emotional range that’s completely new to his career. Like Irish thesp Ronan, the Scots actor also turns in an immaculate southern English accent.
Whole pic, including the French scenes, is convincingly shot around southern England, with a house in Shropshire standing in just fine for the book’s original Surrey setting. Curious decision not to shoot in widescreen almost seems to cramp McGarvey’s graded visuals (bright, semi-pastel summer to hard, colder wartime), and is a definite letdown in the Dunkirk section. Also strange is a caption announcing “four years later” for the Dunkirk material, when it’s actually five.