Atonement (2007) Directed by Joe Wright
Astrid:We watched Atonement one Christmas Eve some years ago and were left with a hesitation about whether the film was any good. It took us until last night to feel like reviewing the movie. This time around, I was quite convinced by it. Atonement fulfilled similar cinema needs as The English Patient used to – until I watched it one too many times. There is the romance that is all the more romantic because the lovers are doomed to never make it to the boring repetitive everyday life together. There is the period setting, the first half of the 20th century, which is a much more aesthetic time than the present. There is the epic scale of the picture, and actually and surprisingly, a good and complex enough story line to carry us through.
I'm still not a huge fan of Keira Knightly – like I don't get Audry Hepburn, I just don't get the anorexic gazelle look – and I find it difficult to peer through her looks into the acting. But hey, at least this time I sympathized with her hopeless love story and believed her passion. I got passed the superstar into the narrative.
Atonement is of course a very popular novel by Ian McEwan and I must credit most of the film's success with me to the writer of the original fiction. The juiciest and most thought-provoking aspect of the story is not the cross-class-border romance, it is the story of the writer woman, who as a young girl of ten destroys the love, and eventually the lives, of her sister and the sister's lover by accusing him wrongly of rape. Then she grows into a well-read fiction writer and she exploits the two lost people even more by writing their (and her) story. The tragedy is that the whole misunderstanding and loss could have been avoided by providing sex education to young children and by getting rid of the rigid class system.
Toff. At one point in Atonement, Robbie (as played with Trevor Howard like intensity by James McAvoy) insists he is not a toff. Although his character, through association, aspires to move up the classes class distinction ultimately destroys his ambitions. So why does Atonement deserve to stand out from the overcrowded British upper class dwelling period drama? Do we need films with such plummy accented characters? I gave up reading Ian McEwan's celebrated book, bored by it. It's my second time watching Atonement and something struck me in a good way on the second viewing.
The faults of the picture are seemingly enough to give up on the whole exercise. Keira Knightley has yet to deliver in any significant way in any movie I've watched her in. Here she's on auto-pilot. McAvoy on the other hand, is bright. Unfortunately for me, he reminds me of a young David Cameron, so it's really difficult to initially feel any sympathy towards his character. The opening half an hour of the film flirts with tension and ultimately delivers us a sermon on coming-of-age sexual awakening mixed with tragedy, and the aforementioned class role playing. Director Wright's time framing of the film has a little of the art school project about it and can feel intrusive.
On the other hand, Wright's bravura French sea shore, one shot scene, which seems never ending, depicting the madness and sheer lunacy of the Second World War, is masterful. It lifts Atonement to a different level, that one piece of inspired film making. It's still not enough to save Atonement from being pretentious. What improved the film so much this second viewing was my own mood. I was feeling sentimental, so I wanted to believe in the central love story between the McAvoy and Knightley characters. I survived Atonement this time, even it's twisted ending that seems zoomed in from a different picture. Yes, one has to admit, there are moments of brilliance here.