Atonement (2007)

3How far can a single lie go in changing the course of the lives of several individuals? This is what Atonement, Joe Wright’s wartime drama sets out to answer. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, and produced to rapturous applause and adoration that has seemingly persisted over the last decade since its release, this film is a fascinating character-study composed of many distinct elements that come together to form a powerful indictment on society and its tendency to negatively impact those who are seemingly outside of its tidy confines. In all honesty, Atonement is a film I respect much more than I love, for a number of reasons, most of all the film’s elegant, but sometimes stifling, approach to the subject matter, its impressive production design that sometimes may deviate into taking over from the narrative, and a set of performances that are remarkably poignant but lack the emotional detail needed to truly set them apart. Atonement is the kind of film that urges us to adore it – and it certainly does have many glowing merits that allow it to be seen as a resounding success. Yet, the very nature of its design keeps the audience at a distance in a way more approachable period films tend to avoid – whereas we’re expecting to be drawn in and captivated by this story, we’re persistently left on the outskirts, forced to peer into these affairs with voyeuristic intentions, rather than being invited into this incredibly compelling story that makes up for its shortcomings with a maturity and grace that occasionally goes amiss in similarly-themed films. By no means a poorly-made film, Atonement is only slightly more than the elegant chamber piece it tries desperately to overcome, and while it doesn’t ruin the film, it prevents it from ever amounting to anything remarkably impressive.

Prior to making Atonement, Wright had directed an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the few times the author’s work has been adapted into an almost perfect film, where the sincerity of the novel, and the meaning of the messages it conveys, come through adequately. To follow up that film, which was incredibly warm, funny and endearing, with the outwardly bleak Atonement, was an intrepid choice, and a risk the director took in his stride. The resulting film was certainly one that succeeded in achieving what it set out to do – comment on both the tangible qualities of society, on both ends of the social and economic spectrum, as well as to explore the more metaphysical aspects that are persistent, such as cultural attitudes towards those outside of your own particular class. Wright’s films may often deviate in how they’re delivered – he’s directed both period pieces and contemporary stories and worked with the genres of powerful, grounded drama and buoyant, exuberant fantasy and science fiction, so he’s not a director who can be necessarily associated with one particular style – but the one quality they all have in common is a deep sense of focusing on both individuality and its role in the society as a whole, which is one of the most successful elements he brings to Atonement, a story written by a novelist whose own quandaries with the same concepts are explored in the pages of his books. Thus, the pairing seemed almost fateful – and yet, the film still falls slightly short of greatness, achieving the impact it sought, but not captivating us enough with the more abstract qualities that a more attentive pairing of novel and adaptation may offer.

Despite being built almost entirely from a character-driven plot, the film seems remarkably void of a lot of emotional resonance – there are certainly moments throughout where the impact of the story is made very clear, such as in the harrowing incident that is central to the film, and the epilogue, where the boundaries of fact and fiction are challenged. However, for the most part, the film seems unable to reach the point where it actually feels authentic – this isn’t so much an indictment on Wright’s inability to infuse emotion into a scene (which we’ve seen him do with even the most vapid of material), but rather his restraint, with his dedication to adapting the novel and its message taking precedence over the more intangible qualities needed to propel the film forward. McEwan’s work as a writer doesn’t always reflect a keen sense of heart, even when his novels are primarily about the relationship between individuals (once again, not a criticism – his books are exceptional, but they do thrive on being more arid portrayals of the human condition), and this is certainly something Wright seemed intent on preserving here. The film has heart, it just doesn’t seem to know how to channel it in the right way – it succeeds in the heartwrenching despair felt by the main characters, and the ending does show that, despite being kept at a distance, these characters were incredibly captivating. However, in the moments where the film needs to truly excel in showing the underlying emotion, such as in the quieter moments of introspection, it seems to be at a disadvantage. The emotion in this film is used well when working within the intentions of the despair associated with the story – it does break your heart, especially in the final moments where we learn the truth and get a glimpse at what could’ve been. The only problem is, the film struggles to stay afloat between these moments and seems to forego any hope in its pursuit of intense realism, which ultimately makes this a beautiful, but unapproachable, piece of filmmaking.

Despite being quite emotionally languid for the most part, Atonement does manage to be quite remarkable in the performances it derives from its cast. James McAvoy leads the film as the tragic protagonist, Robbie Turner, a young man falsely accused of a horrifying crime by someone unaware of the ramifications of her vindication, and forced to have the entire course of his life changed, going from a university-educated man with a promising future to a lowly soldier who is doing his best to make it out of a harrowing war. McAvoy’s sincerity has rarely been more present as it has in Atonement, where he blends his charms as a leading man with an enormous dedication that often only comes from hard-working character actors. The role arguably doesn’t require much, as the entire film is constructed to make us automatically feel sympathy for his supposed involvement in a crime he didn’t commit, and where his low social status is not only a barrier to a successful future but now the main reason why he can never achieve anything more than the restrictive freedom of a soldier. Keira Knightley is extraordinary as well, with her role as the grounded Cecilia contrasting heavily with her exuberant Elizabeth Bennett in her previous collaboration with Wright. Knightley is such a compelling screen presence, and her work in Atonement was strong. However, she falls by the wayside as soon as the film jumps forward in time, as her character, who was never all that essential in the first place and ultimately served the purpose of just being the sole protector of Robbie’s reputation, becoming almost entirely unnecessary. The actress does her best with a role that doesn’t give her much to work with. The opposite can be said for Romola Garai, who is given a meaningful role, with which she does very little, other than reacting to the slow realization that she didn’t do much other than reacting to plight she unintentionally afflicted on others. Garai did have the more difficult role of the three actresses who played the part – Saoirse Ronan didn’t need to do anything other than use her precocious nature and wide-eyed expressiveness to incite the central plot, and Redgrave just needed to draw on her experience as a legendary actress to bring out the longing and regret needed for the melancholic epilogue. Garai is certainly very good, but like the film around her, she is unable to meet the full potential required for the role.

It’s not difficult to understand why Atonement is so beloved, as there are many qualities that tend to work out exceptionally well – the costumes are gorgeous (the green dress Knightley wears at a pivotal moment in the film has already been etched into cinema history), and the production design is lush and beautiful to look at, drawing the audience in and transporting us to another time. However, where the film falters is in its approach to the story, where the emotional content, which is pivotal to the plot, is sometimes overtaken by the intention to be a sombre indictment on social issues. The visual medium afforded to this story was not used to its full extent, with the production design being suitably impressive, but not enough to overcome the sometimes disconcerting subject matter, which deserved a more lucid and far more heartfelt approach, rather than being a relatively straightforward drama that blends elegance and despair, and hopes that this will be enough to convince the audience that this is something particularly profound. The film has an imbalance of despair and hope, with the only joy in this arguably tragic tale being inconsequential, and all too rare to actually ever make much of an impact – this film seems to forget that in order to tell such a tragic story, there always needs to be some form of hope lurking beneath the surface, with the film being sometimes too laborious to be more than just a visually-stunning period film. Perhaps a petty argument, but it does distract somewhat from a film that should’ve been more meaningful in how it approaches a fascinating story. McEwan is a postmodern author writing in the school of realism, which makes his books compelling – the problem is that Wright approached Atonement solely from the perspective of a standard period drama, and while it does have its moment of undeniable beauty, it ultimately falls just short of being all that interesting, which is truly unfortunate, as the film could’ve been something so exceptionally special.


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