Atonement (United Kingdom/France, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Joe Wright's interpretation of Ian McEwan's Atonement proves that, when it comes to literary adaptations, he understands what he's doing. Wright’s previous feature was Pride and Prejudice, a significantly happier production than this one (although both are love stories). He brings along his leading lady, Kiera Knightley, newly finished from swashbuckling alongside Captain Jack Sparrow, and has cast her alongside James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) and Romola Garai. Also making a brief but important appearance is Vanessa Redgrave.

McEwan's novel isn't the easiest to adapt but, by employing occasional, targeted changes and by not jettisoning the essence of the ending (wherein lies the book's full, brutal power), Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton succeed in making a motion picture that is faithful in many ways to its source material. The film is gorgeous to look at, well paced (especially during the first half), and by turns touching and sad. The ending packs an emotional punch, which is what one would expect from any movie developed from a McEwan novel. McEwan may be many things, but he's no Jane Austen. Atonement is a period piece (is Knightley ever in anything else these days?) but it shows growth for Wright as he moves into darker territory.

In 1935, the world is poised on the brink of war, but some families in the English countryside remain isolated and immune. One such family, the Tallises, are seeing their own personal drama unfold. 13-year old Briony (Saoirse Ronan, later played by Romola Garai) is watching a developing relationship between her older sister, Cecilia (Kiera Knightley), and a servant, Robbie (James McAvoy). She feels a combination of jealousy and overprotectiveness. On the one hand, she has a crush on Robbie, but she also views him as a rake and seducer and wants to keep Cecilia safe from his advances. When a girl staying with the family is raped, Briony steps forward with a lie that forever alters three lives.

The film, as the book, is divided into two principal sections with a short epilogue. The second half of the story, which takes place during wartime and follows Robbie to Dunkirk and Briony and Cecilia as nurses, is less interesting than the first act. It lacks the sharp dialogue and character interaction that distinguish the first hour. Over two films, Wright has shown he's at his strongest when emphasizing people and dialogue over action. There's nothing wrong with his wartime depictions of Britain and Northern France, but there's nothing special about them, either.

Wright does some things to make the tale more cinematic. In order to capture the flavor of two scenes in the book in which Briony’s perceptions don't match the reality, he shows events twice - once through Briony's eyes and once from a neutral perspective. It's not Rashomon, but it's an effective approach because it helps us to understand what the girl mistakenly believes is occurring. Later, at Dunkirk, there's a three minute unbroken take that weaves in and out with characters as they wander across the beach then pans back to show the dispirited evacuation.

Kiera Knightley gets star billing, but Cecilia is the least important character of the main trio. Consequently, Knightley doesn't have the opportunity to shine the way she did in Pride and Prejudice. Briony is played by three actresses: Saorise Ronan as a 13-year old, Romola Garai as an 18-year old, and Vanessa Redgrave as an old woman. Great care is taken to make Ronan and Garai look alike and have similar mannerisms. Redgrave doesn’t appear much like either, but she's like Meryl Streep or Glenn Close - if you can get her in a movie, you don't sweat the details.

Atonement is a tragic story regardless of whether it's presented in book form or movie form. The film is more quickly and urgently paced than the book and the dissonant music, which uses a typewriter as a percussive instrument, keeps the audience on edge. Atonement is effective at getting under the skin, and some audience members won't like that. Overall, it's a finely crafted motion picture - perhaps not the equal of Wright's Austen adaptation, but strong enough to make it worth seeing for fans of the book and the genre.

Atonement (United Kingdom/France, 2007)

Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2007
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1