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  Atonement
Joe Wright

Iona Firouzabadi
posted 25 September 2007

1935 brings a hot mirage of a summer. The atmosphere is thick with the privilege of the grand English country house, but somewhere beyond the ha-ha, the low rumble of World War Two is growing. Blissfully unaware of the torment this monumental conflict will bring, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a 13-year-old girl at the centre of her own universe. Into this cosmos she gathers a personal storm.

Briony is a curious girl – a little secret and a little sly. As in Ian McEwan’s novel, we are introduced to her as a writer. The film opens with her typing a play, to be presented to her brother on his return from London. She is a weaver of tales – a precocious child, both spoilt and insecure, who lets her imagination run away with her better nature. On this melting summer day she witnesses an incident through a pane of glass darkly – a curious scene set by a garden fountain. The players are her sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son. Without sound and without context she misinterprets the vignette and so begins her disastrous warping of the real world into a realm of jealousies and spiteful imaginings.

When Lola (Juno Temple), a visiting teenage cousin and evacuee from parental divorce, is attacked, Briony reinvents herself as a criminal witness – again allowing her imagination to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. With terrifying conviction she conjures a ‘truth’ that her family, Lola and the police swallow – damning Robbie to prison.

Atonement is a much anticipated film adaptation of a much-vaunted novel, but you get the impression it thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is. On screen this is a small and claustrophobic tale of duplicity, which uses a clichéd love story to raise the question of authorial reliability. The problem is that none of the leads are interesting – they are devoid not only of psychological depth, but also of any broader social resonance. They exist in a vacuum, offering no wider comment on humanity, as if the world is merely a bland reflection of their own ill-drawn strife. And neither does Art redeem them; McEwan’s exploration of authorial intent, truth and fiction, and the construction of narrative, here fall flat. The conceit of the unreliable narrator provides a sting at the end of the tale, but nothing more intriguing. Partly the fault is Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, partly it’s Joe Wright’s superficially picture-perfect direction - and partly it’s just the acting. The only honest and interesting performance you’ll see comes in the film’s closing scenes and is delivered by Vanessa Redgrave. At least it’s a reason to keep watching.

James McAvoy’s Robbie has no discernable character and is little more than a cipher for our pity. Keira Knightley, who also starred in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, plays Cecilia - a bright young thing with a cut glass Celia Johnson accent. While Knightley manages not to pout her way through the part (Wright is to be commended here), it’s hardly a challenging role, and you can’t help feeling that of all the young actresses in Britain there are probably hundreds that would have done it better. As for Romola Garai, she is made to look plain in every sense. Next to Redgrave, the best performance is from 14 year-old Saoirse Ronan, as Briony’s first incarnation.

Wright’s direction has moments of genius – such as the darkling shore of Dunkirk, filmed in one long, wheeling carnival of a shot, which conveys superbly the mania of that disastrous time. It may even remind you of Coppola’s Vietnam. There’s also a chilling, stunning image set in a bombed underground station. But two shots do not a movie make. Wright seems overly enamoured of the aesthetic, of the visual, of style at the expense of substance.

Like its star, Keira Knightley, Wright’s Atonement is often breathtakingly beautiful, but also ultimately vapid. It takes a telescope to history and views it through the wrong end, making the big things small. Class, war and injustice sink into the background of myriad pretty shots which foreground the petty. We see the vicissitudes of the English class system, a world war and a man’s wasted youth lost through a lens fictively smeared with Vaseline - its hazy imagery dealing only opaquely with details of character and plot. Overall it’s remarkably reminiscent of a perfume advert. Actually Wright will be directing one of these for Chanel this Christmas. Starring Kiera Knightley. Of course.

 

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