When Joe Wright’s sophomore effort Atonement hit Cannes, words like “masterpiece” and phrases like “an instant classic” (what does that mean? add water and stir?) came tumbling forth like oranges from a faulty sack. Being something of a skeptic—and always wary of high-toned dramas that smack of Merchant-Ivory or Masterpiece Theatre—I was prepared to find myself at odds with the headlong rush to propel the film into the pantheon of great movies, regardless of how much I liked Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005). Seeing the film back in December and again today, I’m completely bogged in a mixture of great admiration and complete indifference.
Oh, there’s no denying that Atonement is a good film—even a good film with great moments in it—and if it picks up the Oscar this year, I won’t have to be restrained from throwing a heavy object at the television. It’s an intelligent film, and would be a perfectly reasonable choice—especially compared to some of Oscar’s more embarrassing choices.
The story is solid. It follows one of those class-conscious romances between a rich young woman, Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), and an educated but poor young man, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), whose romance is brought crashing down thanks to the not entirely deliberate machination of Cecilia’s young sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan, I Could Never Be Your Woman). Briony partly misunderstands an encounter between the two, but it’s her own apparent crush on Robbie—and her shock at reading a letter Robbie accidentally sent that contains a rather coarse word for female genitalia (is America ready to come to terms with the “c” word?)—that prompts her to tell the lie (a lie she obviously wants to be the truth) that ruins not just the lives of the lovers, but Briony’s own life as well.
The acting is fine, and in the case of Vanessa Redgrave maybe more than that. I could spend this entire review enthusing over Wright’s endlessly creative direction—and throw in extra kudos for the movie’s amazing single long take in the Dunkirk scene. The segment where Robbie types the fateful letter that propels the plot, while Wright connects him with Cecilia as she prepares for a party through intercutting, is stunning filmmaking in itself. I love the boldness of the approach in terms of risking silliness by going for the power of a highly stylized reality.
I admire the structure of the story, which is occasionally daring, but never seems grafted on to draw attention to the cleverness. I was often surprised by the turns in the story and the way they were presented—though perhaps not as much as I was meant to be by the film’s biggest revelation. In short, I was thoroughly entertained for two hours, and on that score, I can’t fault the movie in the slightest.
So why am I holding back on the unstinting praise? For the simple reason that I never really cared much one way or the other about what happened to any of these characters. I was interested, but detached. I felt like I was watching a pathological study of the effects of an unpleasant young girl’s lie as it destroys three lives.
I almost think the cleverness of the filmmaking process gets in the way of the emotional drama. At the key moment when Robbie is wrenched away from Cecilia on the spurious charge, rather than being caught up in the drama, I was admiring the way Wright had chosen to have the scene lit by the red taillights from the police car.
Then too, some of the early scenes get perilously close to the comedic. The scene where Briony stumbles upon Robbie and Cecilia having upright sex in the library and the pair just freeze in mid-ardor like maybe she won’t notice is close to a racy comedy of manners. Had it added Robbie pretending to look for a book (“Now where did I put that Dickens?”) it would have toppled over into outright farce. That I was even thinking this tells me it wasn’t working for me the way it was intended.
But bear in mind, others have had a much more profound reaction to the film, and even without that, I would still recommend Atonement for all the things it does right. It’s an intelligent, beautifully crafted entertainment—even if I’m not sold on its actual greatness. Rated R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.