Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Atonement - Review by Carmody Wilson

Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton
Running Time: 130 mins
Certificate: 15
Released: 7th September

War tears at the heart. So too do class divisions, schoolgirl crushes, unrequited love, and brief, interrupted passions. All of these play a large part in the shockingly simple, inextricably complicated love story that is Atonement. Directed by Joe Wright, lately of Pride and Prejudice and several television serials, Atonement tells the story of the wealthy Cecilia Tallis ( Keira Knightley), the bright Tallis gardener, Robbie Turner, (James McAvoy) and what the sister, Briony, (Saoirse Roinin) thinks she saw one day whilst looking out the window.

The film starts with the bracing rhythm of a typewriter as Briony finishes her latest masterpiece and wends her way through the labyrinthine corridors and heavily tapestried rooms that make up the Tallis household, the music gradually building to incorporate the staccato sound of that digitized instrument of communication. The film pricks up from the get-go, raising little hairs everywhere as the hapless and romantic Briony, clearly a child of leisurely education, bright intellect and exasperated persuasion, first fails to rouse the attentions of her houseguests in performing her play, then is confronted by a disturbing scene involving her sister and the gardner on the back lawn. Further affronts to Briony’s sensitive nature assault her as she reads a letter not meant for her eyes, and interrupts a sexual coupling on her way to dinner. Two missing houseguests set a chain of events in motion that damage the lives of everyone involved, irrevocably setting romance, blame, responsibility, and truth to ruin. The setting moves from the sweeping majesty of a country idyll to the mephitic wards of allied hospitals and the raw, torn landscapes of Dunkirk. All hell breaks loose, with the typewriter beating out a rhythm of culpability and guilt, playing its pivotal role as the hand-driven contrivance of fate.

Roinin is perfect as the young, addled Briony, embodying the naïve, vengeful, and willful aspects of a child matured by events, not time, a person too young to understand the nuances of adult motivations, but old enough to act upon her instinctual responses to them. Knightley, less jaws and bones in this film and more flesh and blood, creates the part of Cecilia with a combination of cut-glass, upper class inflection and a slightly haughty demeanor, thawed only by her passions for Robbie and the tragedy that plays rack and ruin with their lives. McAvoy, plying his boyish charms and handsome affability, is heartbreaking as Robbie, the poor boy with promise. Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Turner and two older Brionys, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave, round out the saga.

What is tragic, what is beautiful, and what is heartrending about this film is the simple act that set everything asunder. But once shown through the wider lens of eventual happenings, actions and motivations become much more clear and round out the framework of the story. The much beloved novel, written by Ian McEwan, had fans in tears and rages as it was read by book-clubbers and lit lovers alike, and Joe Wright, working from Christopher Hampton’s script, lends a matured hand in guiding this grand epopee to the big screen. What could have a been a sentimental, melodramatic mess, what with its estate settings and World War Two acting as a catalyst, the film is instead a sensitive and smartly told story of love gone wrong, set amid the grandest of misunderstandings. Wright creates tension and discord with his direct, detail –rich shooting style, showing events first as Briony sees them and then as they really happened. What is first seen through a child’s eyes seems shocking, uncomfortable, and difficult to comprehend. As the film progresses and each character is tossed into the calamity of war, the point of view is taken from Briony and instead is broadened to represent a third person telling. Briony’s fate, as with the fate of Robbie and Cecilia, becomes a mystery, their details unfolding only as the plot thickens.

Robbie’s time in the army is given to us in fragments, his relationship with Cecilia told only in remembered whispers and half-forgotten letters. What really happens to them is scattered piecemeal as the film clips along, marching to the pulse of damningly redemptive typewriter. When Briony is revealed to be a junior nurse to the Allied forces, things are still not as they seem, nor as Briony imagines them. The future, as with the past, is still in Briony’s hands, and ultimately she is the one in control of the truth and the fates of her sister and Robbie Turner. McAvoy is heartbreaking as the jaded and destroyed Robbie, bleeding and starving his way through the fields of France with two rag-tag comrades-in-arms, and Knightley retains an impoverished dignity as she works through the wards of the sick and the dying. No overlong moments of longing or great passages of love letters are given as the two lovers lives are lived apart, but instead the brief moments they shared together as they work toward the time when they could be together again. The story plays with time and settings so that orientation within the film is as gauzy and nebulous as only days filled with anguish and uncertainty can be, and Hampton’s script plays not in sentimentality but on simplicity, focusing on circumstance, not feeling. The result is a film that leaves fact and supposition at perfect odds with each other, leaving the damning truth to the very last.

Atonement is a triumph, a chariot bearing the glorious twinning of talent with great storytelling, the glittering smiles of its attractive cast, the glad achievement of its young director and the grand assurance of its place in the roster of excellent literary adaptations and just plum terrific films. It is a tragedy well told, and just in time for awards season. As Lady Macbeth lamented “what is done cannot be undone”, and this may be so, but then, there would be no Atonement.

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