Stunning Atonement an Intoxicating Masterpiece
Atonement is a masterpiece. There really isn’t any other way to describe it, director Joe Wright’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Pride & Prejudice one of the more profound and stunningly enthralling motion picture experiences I’ve recently experienced. The film is a landmark achievement, and alongside Once, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac and Ratatouille it is easily one of the finest pictures 2007 has had the good sense to offer.
Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in Focus Features' Atonement
Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, and much of it filmed on location in the United Kingdom, the story begins with a devastating accusation by 13-year-old fledgling writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) sending the romantic longings of her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and friend Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the educated son of the family's housekeeper, into a dark and twisted tailspin from which it cannot recover.
Flashing forward into the midst of World War II, Robbie is now conscripted in the Army while Cecilia has left her family’s warm embrace to become a nurse living within the bombed-out heart of London. It is here they reconnect and their love, which had once been so callously tossed away because of a sibling’s false witness, is rekindled in a fiery blaze of tumultuous passion.
Through it all a now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) – herself eschewing Oxford to train as a nurse – desperately searches for a way to atone for her tragic mistake. Her ultimate decision is not an easy one, however, and it by no means will erase the damage she’s done to both Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship. But if she’s done her job correctly this expiation of hers might outlast them all, this saga of penitence a hopefully enduring symbol of the power of enduring love others will both embrace and learn from.
What Wright has done here is truly beyond compare. Evoking the ghosts of David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Schlesinger, the filmmaker has crafted an intimately engrossing British period piece that’s both shattering and triumphant. There is nary a false note or beat, and the more McEwan’s tale spins and winds and wraps within and around itself the more I found I was becoming completely lost inside its exhilaratingly emotional embrace.
What is most astonishing is how clearly it respects the power of the written word. So many motion pictures use writers and their works as central characters yet so few understand what it is exactly literature can accomplish when raised to a universal art form. Syllables have meaning beyond their apparently simple roots, while a few eloquent sentences strung together melodiously can have the cathartic ability to ease pain, alleviate suffering and bring peace to a heart heavy with torment.
The filmmaker appreciates this fact and embraces it fully, the story subtly moving to a coda so unexpectedly melodious and moving you almost don’t see it coming. More, he doesn’t beat viewers over the head with his themes, the inherent melodrama as fluid and as genuine as any which can be found in everyday life. The world of Atonement may be gone, these people and their society alien to those of us raised at the tail end of the 20th Century, but that doesn’t make their search for truth any less stirring or their longing for love’s warm embrace any less magical.
Wright wraps these themes together in a beautiful banquet of passing glances, fleeting touches and frantically composed messages, all of it coming together in a single look of quiet regret from an old woman coming to terms with all that her life has entailed. The picture lives and breathes its world yet never looses touch with the pulsating heart of our modern one. It transcends easy definition and the normal genre constraints to morph into something brilliant and alive, the director eschewing the typical sophomore slump and announces his arrival as a singularly major talent worth keeping an eye on.
In other words, from the acting of its entire cast (especially extraordinary young newcomer Ronan) to the technical virtuosity going on behind the scenes (Sarah Greenwood’s production design is astounding, while Dario Marianelli’s evocative score might just be the best I’ve heard this year) Atonement is a revelation. More, it is an instant classic, Wright’s mind-blowing marvel a sensation I’m sure I’ll euphorically enjoy over and over again.
Film Rating: êêêê (out of 4)
- review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
- Atonement Theatrical Trailer