Love and war
Atonement is a good period piece when it stays on track
Joe Wright’s Atonement, adapted with Christopher Hampton from a highly regarded novel by Ian McEwan, is a sleekly dramatic entertainment, not quite worthy of the extravagant praise it’s been getting in some quarters, but of more real interest than its moments of grandiloquent posturing might indicate.
Part of what’s both deceptive and intriguing in the film (up for a Best Picture Oscar) is a matter of historical sprawl—the story’s major phases occur on a lush English estate in 1935, when the key characters are early teens and very young adults, and in 1939-40, when all of them are swept up in the early stages of World War II and in the gloom of the Allied retreat at Dunkirk, in particular. But there’s also a kind of coda, from the old age of the youngest character, which asks us to reconsider key elements of what we’ve been told and shown in the earlier sections.
Reassessment and conflicting vantage points are recurring elements of the tale, most centrally with the ominously impressionable Briony, who is 13 in 1935 and already showing a flair for dramatic fiction and authorship. But the more conspicuous part of the film plays out as a fitfully convoluted mixture of love story and war epic, with Briony’s older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) and handsome, talented Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s cleaning woman, as doggedly heroic figures enduring trials and tribulations both large and small.
The shifting perspectives take on a special urgency by way of the tragic fallout—for Briony, as well as the loving couple—from a mistaken moment of childhood treachery. But the form that Wright’s film finds for itself places the emphasis elsewhere—in the contrasting spectacles of the privileged life in Britain circa 1935 and an army in disarray on the beach at Dunkirk in 1940.
The film’s formal centerpiece, a bravura six-minute tracking shot through the brutal chaos at Dunkirk, seems arbitrary and pretentious even as it exerts a certain power and fascination. There is something fittingly ironic about having this burst of epic swagger come midway in a narrative that both starts out and ultimately ends with Briony’s distinctively slanted point of view. But the segment also seems curiously emblematic of a production more committed to spectacular surfaces than to anything else.
The separate phases of Briony’s story—age 13, age 18, elderly—are performed, to distinct but not particularly profound effect, by three different actresses: Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave, respectively. McAvoy and Knightley are strong but also somewhat remote, which may also be partly appropriate, under the given circumstances. And Knightley, who seemed preeningly false in Wright’s tarted up version of Pride and Prejudice, delivers a period-piece performance that sports unexpected authenticity.
Wright seems to have encouraged and indulged some unlikely overacting in a handful of interesting secondary roles, and with the contrasting mother figures played by Brenda Blethyn and Harriet Walter in particular. But a candy manufacturer of dubious inclinations (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of Robbie’s fellow soldiers (Daniel Mays), and Briony’s wartime friend (Michelle Duncan) create some of the more interesting ripples in the film’s erratically sardonic undercurrents.