Christopher Hampton (Novel: Ian McEwan)
Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn, James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Juno Temple, Romola Garai, Gina McKee, Anthony Minghella, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremie Renier
R (for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality)
Love stories have been told in a myriad of ways. Atonement has many of those same elements, but puts a different spin on the tale.
Set to the mesmerizing musical beat of a typewriter, Briony Tallis crafts the story of her life from child- to adulthood. She is played in three portions of her life by actresses Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave. If their tale were not segmented, it might be conceivable to consider them the leads of the story. However, Briony puts her life to the side as she examines the love affair of her sister and their gardener.
Briony’s a writer. The story opens as she (Ronan) tries to put together a performance of her new play. While waiting for her younger cast to finish playing in the pool, she spies her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) angrily jumping into the fountain seemingly at the behest of the gardener Robbie (James McAvoy). Moments later, we see a different version of the events with Robbie trying to keep her from jumping in to get a broken piece of a vase.
One assumption leads to another and she accuses Robbie of the rape of Lola Quincey (Juno Temple). She has unmistakably witnessed this event. While she is acting to protect her sister, it’s really her jealousy that causes her to lash out at the young man.
The film continues through World War II where Robbie enlists to get out of prison, and Cecilia and Briony (Garai) have become nurses. Briony does all she can to try and reconcile her mistakes with the two, trying to get them together; however, they want nothing to do with her.
Long after the war, the triptych comes to a close as, during a television interview, the elder Briony (Redgrave) tells of her novel about the lovers and the truths and embellishments contained within.
The Three Brionys are so uncannily similar that it’s a credit to the three actresses involved. Each is burdened with carrying a separate segment of the narrative, bridging character and personality effortlessly. As they age, screen time diminishes and Redgrave is left with the sort of emotional lynchpin that won Beatrice Straight an Oscar for Network in one of the shortest such victories in Academy history.
Redgrave’s work has never been lacking in quality. Even in films that provide no challenge to an actress of her capabilities, such as Deep Impact and Mission: Impossible, she adds a depth to the character that few in the business can achieve. Here, she’s taken the character from her self-centered beginnings and thrust her into a reality where the consequences of her actions have sunken in and wisdom has settled on her. Redgrave’s powerful performance leaves no doubt that she could certainly compete for the Oscar.
That’s not to minimize the accomplishments of the others. Ronan gets the majority of the scenes and does marvelously with them. She gives her character the self-assured cockiness of a spoiled society child, the reasonably astute view of the lives of those around her, and a certainty that only a child with no real world experience can exhibit. She delivers one of the best performances by a younger actress in recent memory and has a chance at an Oscar nomination for the role.
Garai delivers a meek and self-aware portrait of the young adult Briony. That arrogance of her childhood has vanished and she now faces a world at war. It is imperative she grow or be destroyed by emotionally and physically. She is able to allow the character to mature in her all-too-brief segments. Sadly, with the Academy entranced by youth or experience, Garai may be sitting the Oscars out. During the period of history in which this film was set, it was not uncommon for three performers to earn nominations in the same category for one film. However, it’s highly uncommon for two, let alone three to get in. So, although she would certainly deserve a nomination alongside her fellow Brionys, I’m afraid it’s not going to be in her cards.
The best thing that can be said about the film is that the actors give it their all. Knightley is more refrained and less forceful than her work in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. But the real standout among the supporting cast is McAvoy. He showed great promise in last year’s The Last King of Scotland and herein he improves upon that, proving himself to be one of the finest young actors currently working. He plays Robbie with the right blend of charisma, self-assuredness and sensibility.
Atonement‘s problems can be boiled down to its director. Joe Wright, choosing a minimalist approach to this period romance, interjects thoughts and scenes into the picture that feel wholly out of place. Several scenes, including those on the beach during the war, a field in the forest seem tangential. A few could have been trimmed back or altered. What he does right though, involves the way the film shifts backwards and forwards presenting reality as the younger Briony sees it and then showing what actually transpired. It has been done poorly so often that it’s a pleasant surprise to see it done with some manner of efficiency.
The film asks many questions about the nature of love and the ability for a person to atone for their sins. It shows us that sometimes our actions can result in unalterable consequences. However, when the final scenes unfold, we understand that true atonement is a resolution achieved by the soul, not necessarily by the body.
December 14, 2007