Atonement

September 11, 2007

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 The trailers were on the wrong side of lame, it stars an uber-hyped young femme still an unproven swimmer in more serious dramatic waters, and the title is the type of word largely familiar only to degree-level English students and Bible-heads. Bring on Atonement!

It’s all very twee and Noel Coward for the first quarter, as several characters in a huge country mansion melt in the glory of a 1930’s summer. They drink, swim, tan, banter, and ingest more nicotine than in an omnibus edition of Dog The Bounty Hunter. A 13-year-old aspiring writer attempts to direct her visiting cousins in a performance of her first play, to celebrate her brother Leon’s return from some place or other. The class divide is strikingly realised in this idyllic setting, as posh toff Keira Knightley’s posh toff character Cecilia saunters about being rude to servants- rising star James McAvoy in particular, who appears to be some sort of gardner. This is suspicious, not least because they are the two sexy leads on the poster and so should surely be ripping each other’s clothes off at speed. Oh, now they are.

Revealing the events that kick-start the story into astonishing life would blow the whole plotline. Suffice to say a simple, childish mistake soon leaves the slow-burning meanderings of the opening section in tatters. The lovers are thrown apart, and four years later we find McAvoy’s Robbie in the the fiery belly of WWII. What follows is in essence a traditional, heart-wrenching romance movie, but with Joe Wright in the director’s chair it becomes something unflinchingly special.

At 35 and with only his second feature film (the first being last year’s Pride & Prejudice re-vamp, also starring Miss Knightley), Wright has made his play for the big time. Opting once again for a vastly popular novel for his source material, he commands Ian McEwan’s epic love tragedy with all the skill and discipline of a seasoned maverick. Adaptations of sickeningly successful modern novels arrive laden with expectation and cynicism even before the ever-more-annoying Orange ads start to roll, the pressure to please the widest net of fans often compromising the quality of the production itself (ahem, The Da Vinci Code). Yet- remarkably- the script isn’t crammed full of expository voice-over and unecessary chatter plucked lazily from the book. In fact the screenplay is barely there at all, leaving Wright free to work wonders with imagery and tell the story with some of the most beautiful lens-candy in recent memory. If this doesn’t win the cinematography Oscar there is no God.

The fuzzy love bits are set against a bleak backdrop of the horrors of war, and while not strictly in the provocative vein of Jarhead and… other such provocative war films, it does an admirable job communicating the abandonment and sheer desperation of the troops left to wait for destiny. The lengthy, much talked-about tracking shot along Dunkirk beach is a modern miracle, pulling us (The Verve’s Bitterweet Symphony video-style) through a torrid snapshot of the wounded, the brave, the drunken; some without hope, some clinging to it, but most still sharing the comraderie so vital to the eventual victories. Set among the wreckage of a deserted fairground, it’s a poignant and potentially groundbreaking piece of cinema and one that, come DVD hour, should reveal new and enlightening detail with each repeat watch.

All the gorgeous work behind the camera almost detracts from the top drawer performances in front. McAvoy delivers on promises of greatness displayed in The Last King Of Scotland and the breezier Starter For 10, balancing his heroic lead perfectly with valor and understatement in equal parts. And whatever your opinions on Keira Knightley’s rise to stardom, her pretty pouting act serves her role well this time and she actually holds her own in her most demanding job to date. Saoirse Ronan is a revalation in the shoes of misguided young intellectual Briony, Wright’s love of close-ups enhancing rather than challenging her flawless performance. It’s a credit to the actors that potentially detached characters swallowed quickly in a storm of disaster (unusual for a seemingky slow-burning film) can stir such feeling and empathy in an audience, but the incredible care and sensitivity director Wright has invested in his cast coupled with the simplicity and sophistication he’s able to acheive makes Atonement a genuine cinema experience.           

An innovative patchwork narrative, jumping in and out of flashbacks and often returning to show the same scenes from a different perspective doesn’t utterly convince through much of the film, but the kick-in-the-balls conclusion reveals the true purpose of the device. To see such a characteristically modern storytelling tool (though in printed terms it goes back much further) in such a faithful period piece both inspires and disturbs. It was what made Peter Jackson’s King Kong– however you rated it- the old-school ‘event cinema’ it was, surely to become more common as directors begin to harness the cutting-edge technology capable of creating movie worlds from the golden age and adding their post-modern indie twists. On whatever level you engage with this film, engage with it you should.

 The Crunch

5 / 5  naughty 4-letter words

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One Response to “Atonement”

  1. Jack said

    Wicked Film! Brap…

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