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April 27, 2013

Atonement (2007)
Director: Joe Wright
Actors: James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Keira Knightley

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Synopsis: An eminent writer, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan/Romola Garai/Vanessa Redgrave), reflects in later-life on a sudden moment of spitefulness in her childhood which inexorably shaped the lives of two lovers (James McAvoy and Keira Knightley).

Review: Although it would be hard to really screw this up, based on the inherent excellence of Ian McEwan’s source novel and the huge budget at his disposal, director Joe Wright still does a commendable job of making cinematic and accessible the fascinating pictorial and thematic raw materials of ‘Atonement’.

It could almost be said that Wright’s biggest fault is in trying to make too populist the machinations of the novel. The motif of a typewriter playing over the action – meant to signify where Briony’s precocious imagination is taking hold – is a slightly inelegant and over-demonstrative tactic, not in keeping with the crafted lushness of the rest of the film. I’m also slightly unconvinced about Wright’s tour de force Dunkirk tracking shot which over a series of minutes takes the viewer in to the epic carnage as the British troops desperately awaited their rescue. It seems a sequence designed more to wow and fast-track an air of pathos, although in mitigation, I except that Wright had time-restrictions over that section of the narrative, so perhaps it was meant to act as microcosm for the tragedy of Robbie’s experience in wartorn France.

Where Wright does succeed is in making absolutely lucid McEwan’s fascinating central theme of atonement. The opening half of the film where the seminal betrayal plays out almost hypnotically on a hot English summer’s day is superb, with Wright doing just enough (multiple playings of various scenes and Saoirse Ronan’s compelling presence) to suggest there’s already something complicit and sinister about Briony’s actions beyond her understandably confused adolescent perspective. The late twist with Vanessa Redgrave’s older incarnation of Briony ‘atoning’ for her errors through the release of her final book is a fitting end to the ideas thrown up by McEwan. Far from being a suitable act of penance – much like her nursing (in the Romola Garai section) which more than anything else was an act of self-importance – it is just a further sign that this woman is still enacting a series of evasions over her culpability in the destroying of Robbie and Cecilia’s lives. As she herself admits, even when her conscience was beginning to kick in during her late teens, she still had the chance to speak to the authorities and confess to the unreliability of her evidence (even if ‘raped’ and ‘rapist’ were now married) but she chose to retreat into her typewriter and fervid imagination which were at the root cause of the whole saga in the first place. (April 2013)

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