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Film Review: Atonement

Atonement (2007; Directed by Joe Wright)

What could have been a prim and pleasant blandishment of an adaptation instead retains the visceral and unforgiving longing of Ian McEwan’s quite outstanding novel. Director Joe Wright is much more assured with his camera (and, vitally, in his editing suite) than he was in Pride & Prejudice, showing impressive control of actors and visual imagery (especially in a grand single-shot sweep across a beach in Dunkirk littered with the human and materiel detritus of the infamous army evacuation there in June 1940). But then he has much better material to work with here, with all apologies to Jane-ites (P&P was never her literary peak anyway, you know).

Atonement begins with a momentous occurence in the lives of three people (and maybe a few more) on an English country estate in the 1930s that profoundly alters the trajectory of their lives on into the Second World War. An expected path of romance is violently diverted by shocking accusations of a truthfulness that proves dubious. McEwan is well and truly fascinated by chance circumstances snowballing and escalating into tragedy, as his less-accomplished novel Saturday demonstrates, but there’s more than merely such thematic gristle in this narrative mill.

Hollywood prestige film It Girl Keira Knightley grabbed many of the accolades as Cecilia, even if she continues to fail to find a role she couldn’t approach in roughly the same way as she did her last one. But James McAvoy gets true first billing as her star-crossed lover, and he deserves it: his Robbie Turner endures wound after wound and somehow soldiers on with a grim, hollowed-out determination (or so we’re lead to think). Watch, also, for a then-little-known Benedict Cumberbatch as an expertly slimy creeper of a millionaire who plays a key role in the seismic events at the country estate.

What makes this film more than another soppy costume-drama Brit-mance, however, is the role of Briony (played with utter conviction at different ages by three actresses, including superb Oscar-nominated teen Saorsie Ronan), and her shaping of this story for her own purposes and for ours. The younger sister of Cecilia lets her teenaged fancies run away with her at a crucial moment, but her transmutation of those fancies inform a later attempt to set the troubled circumstances somewhat right, if only retroactively.

Atonement, in novel and in film form, isn’t just about love and class or judgement and forgiveness in the way an Austen novel can tend to be, on its surface. Atonement is about the sublime dishonesty of storytelling, and how crafting soothing narratives obscures the harsher truths of our blasted heath of a modern reality. And the fact that Wright’s film manages to convey such complex and destabilizing concepts while maintaining its haunting loveliness and inherently longing for completion makes it pretty darned great.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
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  1. September 17, 2013 at 8:05 am
  2. April 6, 2015 at 10:04 am

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