Notes On A Scandal: Tall Tales of Torment by Typewriter in 1930’s Britain Movie Review: “Atonement”

By Omar P.L. Moore/December 7, 2007

Affairs of the heart and the lies: Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis and James McAvoy as Robbie Turner in "Atonement", directed by Joe Wright.  (Photo: Alex Bailey/Focus Features)

 “Atonement”, which opened today in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles – sixty-six years after the attack on Pearl Harbor – marks a solid second film from director Joe Wright, whose immense confidence shows as he tackles the scope of a huge canvas, in a film based on Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel and adapted for the big screen by Christopher Hampton.  The film’s strength is in its evocation of British class distinctions and subtleties and in its execution of the dimensions of innocence in the story, and how that particular quality in several of the film's figures becomes a central and distinct character that is either a violator or is violated.  The visual power of “Atonement” (cinematography by Seamus McGarvey) is amazing, with stupendous camerawork particularly in two moments, one in a fading close-up of a lead character during World War Two in Northern France, the other in a spectacular, even moving, unbroken four-minute tracking-shot.

Storytelling is the essence of “Atonement”, and not unlike moments in last year’s “Notes On A Scandal”, it all depends on who is telling the story at any given time.  In the present film’s case, it’s Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan) a girl of thirteen who sees some hanky panky between one Robbie (James McAvoy) a member of the servant class and her own sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley).  Thirteen-year-olds often see things they aren’t supposed to, and keeping a secret is not necessarily in their vocabulary.  Briony however, looks for love and acceptance but makes decisions that will make things a lot harder during wartime, especially for some of the war’s unintended victims. 

While “Atonement” focuses on the tensions between the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, the loving and the loveless, Mr. Hampton’s script also depicts longing and desperation in ways that sneak up on the audience, especially so in the second half of the film, which is the far stronger and compelling half.  “Atonement”, which is nearly always shot from a third person’s perspective, features James McAvoy at his best as Robbie, a man caught in a web of scandal, an inanimate man trapped in animated and fanciful circumstances.  Mr. McAvoy displays a self-containment throughout that is powerful.  His eyes burn with contempt, but also with the fire of love that could set war enemy villages alight.  Ms. Knightley takes on Cecilia and puts on the airs of a flighty debutante-type whose desires flicker and dart in only one direction.  Cecilia knows her younger sister well, and the journey to the end of “Atonement” takes several turns.

The costumes (by Jacqueline Durran) and production design (Sarah Greenwood) are well-rendered in Mr. Wright’s film, with score of the film also fitting appropriately.  “Atonement” stretches a little longer than it should, but its conclusion satisfies once it arrives, a conclusion that is a realistic resolution to the unresolved threads life often presents.  Setting the film amidst World War Two, in which the scars remain vividly alive to this day, is a clever move, for the film’s story has the legs to match.  Undoubtedly, there will be some Oscar buzz surrounding Mr. Wright's second effort, just as buzz surrounded his first, "Pride and Prejudice", which also starred Ms. Knightley. 

"Atonement", on its technical merits (cinematography and production design) deserves serious consideration this awards season.

"Atonement" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.  The film's duration is two hours and ten minutes.

Related: Feature Story on James McAvoy of "Atonement"

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2007.  All Rights Reserved.



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