Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Movie review: Atonement
Atonement is the second-straight masterwork from director Joe Wright, all the more remarkable since he only has two feature films to his credit.
The film world is full of seemingly serendipitous pairings – Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Paul Haggis and Clint Eastwood, etc. You can now add to that list Keira Knightley and Joe Wright. Wright has cast Knightley as the lead in both of his feature films, Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement, and his deft handling of both the material and Knightley herself has led to the two best performances of her career and an auspicious start to his feature film career.
To be sure, Wright’s niche does seem to be period filmmaking – it’ll be interesting to see in his next film what he does with a modern story (and without Knightley, for that matter). Although the time period is adjusted from the 19th century in Pride to the 20th in Atonement, the feel is much the same. Once again, the initial setting is in upper class English society and the subject matter is a romance between members of disparate classes, Cecilia (Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy).
Right from the beginning, though, it’s easy to tell that Atonement will not be your typical exploration of the rift between the two classes. Wright jumps the film back and forth in time with abandon, sometimes choosing to show the same scene from different perspectives in order to fully get across the scope of what’s happening in the story. This does get a tad confusing, as the jumps back and forth almost take a math major to figure out when a certain scene is taking place. When one moment is four years in the future, then six months in the past, then eight weeks in the future from that point, it’s easy to get lost.
But all of this playing around with time serves a dramatic purpose. The story also explores the concept of reality, both in questioning if what a certain character sees is the full truth and in making the audience figure out if what we’re seeing on screen is real or imagined. Both of these situations come into full force through the character of Briony (Saoirse Ronan), Cecilia’s younger sister, who also happens to have an unrequited crush on Robbie. The state of her love being unreciprocated leads her to being resentful and jealous of Cecilia and Robbie’s blooming romance, which in turn causes her to accuse Robbie of a crime he did not commit, setting in motion the rest of the film. Robbie’s journey to jail and eventually to World War II brings up issues that the 13-year-old Briony could not have anticipated, and the majority of the film is spent showing how her fateful decision affects the course of three separate lives – Robbie’s, Cecilia’s, and her own.
Knightley has three things to thank for her luminous performance – her talent, her director, and the costume designer. The series of dresses and one notable swimsuit that she wears serve to inform her character as much as anything she says or Wright does. For at least the first half of the film, Cecilia is the focus of the film, regardless of whether she’s at the center of a particular scene. But Ronan’s performance is just as strong, if not stronger. A writer mature beyond her years, Briony carries the film’s major themes, and Ronan is able to embody her heartbreak, bitterness, and manipulative nature through a stoic expression that rarely changes, something that is even more striking when it falters for a beat or two. McAvoy is able to match the two females note for note, giving the film the necessary emotional heft.
Wright handles each scene expertly, something that’s most noticeable when he transitions between two different perspectives of the same scene, and especially in one bravura sequence on a beach in France when he tracks Robbie walking among his fellow troops for at least four minutes in one continuous shot. It’s not until the scene is almost over that you realize what a feat it was, weaving in and out of hundreds, if not thousands of soldiers, up and down sand dunes, with multiple people speaking and/or singing. It’s not quite on the level of the amazing one-shot sequences in last year’s Children of Men, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Atonement is the second-straight masterwork from Wright, all the more remarkable since he only has two feature films to his credit. It’s a success on almost every level you can name and it deserves to be listed among the best films of the year (and already has been).
See more stories in:
- Movie review: The Soloist
- New on DVD: Atonement, Enchanted and I Am Legend
- Oscar overdose, take two: Dallas film lover watches all five "best picture" nominees in one day
- Oscar overdose: Arlington film lover views all five "best picture"-nominated movies in one day
- AMC Theaters to host orgy of Best Picture nominees and popcorn