CAPSULE: Joe Wright adapts Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel ATONEMENT. What a thirteen-year-old sees happen at an English country house is not really what happened. Her testimony when a crime is committed brings tragedy to two people. The film moves us from a posh country home to the war-ravaged shores of Dunkirk. The film tricks the viewer, but can only do that by blatantly cheating. The film is graced but not really enhanced by an impressively intricate tracking shot. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
There is a literary sort of film we see coming from England. It is the Merchant-Ivory-Masterpiece-Theater sort of thing with the English upper crust and all their social graces. Another sort of film more frequently seems to come more from the United States. These are puzzle films that are more than just mysteries. They play with the medium itself. For example, MEMENTO tells its story backward in time and the viewer has to guess how the story began. These two story types have been combined in prose, as in Saki's short story "The Open Window," but one rarely sees them combined in film. They sit uneasily together in ATONEMENT. This is a film all about misunderstanding what one sees. Just as young Briony Tallis (played at age thirteen by Saoirse Ronan) gets the wrong ideas about something she sees at her country house, the viewer also sees things that are not really as they seem. But director Joe Wright does not actually play fairly with the viewer. In one case, for example, one character recognizes another in a crowd only to get up close and find it was not really that person. The mistake is understandable since Wright quite noticeably used one actor at a distance and another one close up. Scenes shown from two different people's perspectives have large differences. Perhaps Wright is going for a RASHOMON effect. Still other places, the viewer quite intentionally is shown one thing happening and then is later told that is not what happened at all. There is more deception than meets the eye.
Later in the film we see the British on the beach at Dunkirk waiting to be evacuated. We move among them in a tracking shot just a little short of five minutes in length. The staging of this scene is a tour de force in logistics and coordination requiring great effort to make sure the hundreds of actors are in place just as the camera reaches them. It goes beyond impressive all the way to being jaw-dropping. But there is a difference between a jaw-dropping achievement and a jaw-dropping stunt. If it really makes the film more effective it is an achievement. Here I did not see what it really added. Perhaps it may add some immediacy, but more likely it will be just a distraction.
Briony Tallis is fascinated by the relationship between her sister Cecilia (played by Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy). Robbie is the son of a servant who has become almost one of the family. When Briony sees her sister act in a provocative way in front of Robbie and later sees them making love, she jumps to a wrong conclusion. This combines with her testimony about a genuine crime to create long-lasting problems for the three. Later we see what they are each doing near the time of the Dunkirk evacuation. They have come by different routes. We see how their relationship has been forever altered by what Briony did years before. The plot is a little contrived with Robbie making a mistake necessary to make the plot work but otherwise very unlikely. His error is a mix-up almost worthy of a Shakespeare comedy. And for me there were unfortunate associations with the character of Ada Doom from Stella Gibbon's COLD COMFORT FARM. Ada Doom destroyed her whole life because as a little girl she "saw something nasty in the woodshed." Briony too saw something nasty with bad repercussions.
Undeniably there is an interesting story here of guilt without redemption, something that we rarely see in films and have not seen since HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. But there is a lot that is contrived and does not work. I will probably be in a minority, but the little things wrong with the film add up to too much. I rate the film a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. Note: this film has one of the longest tracking shots in an English-language film, but it is dwarfed by the tracking shot in RUSSIAN ARK. That is a 99-minute film which except for the titles and credits is one long tracking shot filmed inside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. There is really does enhance the surrealism of the film. But I am not sure the long shot did much for ATONEMENT.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0783233/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper