Cast: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave
Director: Joe Wright
Runtime: 130 min.
Genre: Romance, Drama
It is easy to compare Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s classic, set in a period before the World War II, and dismiss Atonement. McEwan’s classy blend of robust prose describing delicate feelings lends a certain amount of earthliness to the proceedings, a rich verve of humor, and that is what absorbed me into its world. But let us just leave that classic novel as it is, and first grasp the essentiality of the story.
Atonement is essentially a drama caused by a silly girl, silly and vain, who has lived her entire life under the impression of being the center of the universe, who derives the reality of the world through literature. She is 13, her name is Briony Tallis, and I say vain because although she writes hell of a lot of stories dealing with the feelings of her characters the prose embellished with recently acquired barely comprehended adjectives, still the soul limits itself to only the letters and the words. I say silly because I’ve myself been 13, and have spent a significant amount of my childhood under that very impression and I’ve been around with several such kids. For that matter, we all have. Yet, none of us ever breezed through our lives viewing ourselves exclusively that, and most of us have been incredibly smarter than this girl here. I remember wading through McEwan’s prose, and wanting so desperately to get worked up on my punching bag. Believe me, she’s that silly. So, let us leave her at that, where she’s new to the process of discovering the teenage life and feelings. Love, sexual naivety, ego, infatuation and that is pretty much that.
Cecilia Tallis (Knightley), elder sister to Briony, is having conflicts with the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (McAvoy), the kind of conflicts that lead to romance and then hopefully to ever lasting love. Robbie, an Oxford student is harboring ambitions of pursuing a medical degree, thanks to the old man of the house. In one of those conflicts, derived out of pure and powerful adolescent emotions, a valuable possession of the house in the form of a flower vase is broken into the fountain. Cecilia, in a fit of ego dives into the water, retrieves it, and thunders past Robbie. Briony looks at the entire episode from an upstairs window, sans the audio. Barely comprehending it, she misinterprets it as an act of vulgar treatment on Robbie’s part.
Now Robbie, with his intention of apologizing to Cecilia and confessing his love to her, drafts a letter. Unable to muster the courage to face Cecilia, he sets Briony as the messenger. The curious cat in her opens the letter, and it turns out to be a letter with the wrong content describing fantasies concerning a certain anatomical feature of Cecilia’s body, which Robbie just happened to type in a moment of carnal digression. Later in the night, during a party, she interrupts a moment of passion between Robbie and Cecilia and with that bitterness in her, caused by infatuation reaching its match-point, she lies about a perverse crime committed later that night, incriminating Robbie. The budding romance is brutally hacked right there, in its first night of passion, and Robbie, with the War burning on the western front ends up at Dunkirk.
That is all you need to know to gather what I’ve to say. Atonement is essentially an internal tale, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. As much as it is a sweeping epic, it dwells in the moment too and the story essentially draws its strength from it. The way the flowers are arranged in the vase, as much as is a trivial detail, means everything here. Such moments, in the least, need a certain amount of serenity, a calmness where we can feel them. I’m reminded of Stephen Daldry’s masterpiece The Hours and how it captured these moments. Here, director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) in his attempt to match McEwan’s prose, executes a mise en scène that includes extended tracking shots scored primarily with the clacking of the typewriter. The clack-clack of the typewriter is a reference to Briony, and that she is at the center of it, and we sure understand that. Hell we even admire that. We never feel the moment though, and the entire thing feels like an exercise in narration. Remember, I say execute, because there’s that empty artistic perfection to the proceedings. We are treated sumptuously to the mist of the morning air, but that is as far we get to invade this world. Frames are exquisitely composed, the acting quite theatrically perfect, and everything is so smooth we feel like we’re watching a machine at work.
Let me make things a little more clear. The film, as well as the novel, is essentially an allegorical reference to Christianity, the title signifying the reconciliation of God and humans brought about by the redemptive life and death of Jesus. Robbie standing in for the innocent, betrayed Jesus and Briony, well, Judas. She has committed a grave sin, and she grows up she would comprehend the gravity of her folly. She might atone for her sin then. Robbie meanwhile is in Dunkirk, where the English were annihilated at the start of World War II. As he’s waiting for rescue, at the beach with countless other soldiers, he’s made to witness the harrowing images of war. There’re soldiers lying wounded, some dead, but we never feel it. There’s this long tracking shot in the middle of the combat zone, which everyone is talking about. Robbie walks through as he registers these scenes, and he’s in a daze. It is supposed to be his Via Dolorosa, and we totally understand it, again. Rather we admire it, again. But unfortunately, again, we don’t feel it. The reaction I mustered was – “Oh boy, that is one heck of a tracking shot there. How did they manage that?” – I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line where Jim Caviezel walks through a war ravaged area, stunned. I still remember my eyes moistening during that sequence, and only later did I notice the virtuosity of the filmmaking. Incidentally, Caviezel played his part through another, relatively more literal Via Dolorosa in The Passion of the Christ. I guess it is just my quirky self. Never mind. The Christian metaphors are so abundant they even have a wound smack in the middle of Robbie’s chest.
At the end it doesn’t feel like the epic tragedy it is supposed to be. It rather feels kind of silly. There's all the fabrication of cinematic poetry and literature here, not the gravity of real life. The ending felt less of a shocker and more of a narrative manipulation. The film sort of lied out there, smug, in its own cocoon, oblivious of us waiting to be admired. I’m sure you’ll admire it a lot too, but I’m not sure you would be taking anything home. As the film ended, I said to myself – “that sure was good.” In the same breath, I was wondering about the rise in the oil prices. May be it is just my end, for much of me has been spent last night watching Into the Wild. Do watch Atonement. I can assure you though, your best picture of the year is elsewhere.