“Atonement” has plenty of Oscar-movie gloss: literary pedigree, a tony British setting, tragic romance, luminous stars in period costume, even a dollop of Good War heroism.
But with its eccentric narrative and its shocking last-second twist, “Atonement” takes those trappings and spins them into something more unsettling than a typical period drama. Here is a story in which words kill as surely as bullets, no less so for coming from the mouth of a child.
Ian McEwan, a producer on the film, wrote the novel about a budding writer whose childhood “crime” wrecks the lives of at least two people and chronicles her later efforts to atone for that crime. It seems straightforward enough but becomes as self-referential as an Escher drawing.
“Dangerous Liaisons” scripter Christopher Hampton beat Tom Stoppard for the chance to adapt the novel. Hampton was nearly finished with one version of the script when helmer Richard Eyre dropped out to direct “Notes on a Scandal” and Working Title brought in Joe Wright to direct.
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With Wright, Hampton started over, this time eschewing any voiceover. The result is a screenplay that feels remarkably faithful to McEwan’s book while taking considerable liberties with it.
One of those liberties is the shortening of the book’s middle section.
Budgetary limitations condensed the novel’s hellish journey across France ahead of the advancing Nazis into a surreal extended Steadicam shot on chaotic Dunkirk beach. It’s a tour de force, but this is not a story about the pretty side of life, and the film’s design reflects that in subtle ways as well: the slightly wilted English country estate in summer; the shabby exhaustion of the city in wartime; even the high-tech sterility of a present-day TV studio.
Dario Marianelli’s nominated score adds to the melancholy mood. He appropriates the clack of typewriter keys and the impact of war drums before weaving it all into regretful swells.
Saoirse Ronan grabbed a nom of her own for her portrayal of pubescent confusion. If Ronan provides some unlikely gravity, then Keira Knightley and James McAvoy provide star power, evoking the period’s own movie greats.
“Atonement” wasn’t beloved by the guild awards-givers, and there were some dissenting voices amid the mostly rapturous reviews. Yet the underlying ideas of “Atonement” may strike a chord with movie pros.
Beyond the lush romance, “Atonement” is about the power of fiction, both to hurt and to heal. That has to carry some weight at the Dream Factory.