Atonement (2007) dir. Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai
“Atonement” is a hit and miss romantic epic which tells a broad and tragic story of two lovers who try to be together through personal and historical turmoil. Frequent themes of the genre including guilt, honour and class are at play and the story places itself in the heart of WWII, which automatically compares itself to “The English Patient”. Unfortunately Joe Wright’s film is too big for its two-hour running time and falls short of power of Anthony Minghella’s film.
James McAvoy and Keira Knightley play Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis, residents of an upper class English home in the countryside. Coy flirtations turn into a brief passionate romance, which upsets Cecilia’s jealous younger sister Briony. When a heinous assault occurs on the premises, Briony lays the blame and Robbie and he sent to prison. Years go by before Robbie and Cecilia find each other again and rekindle their passionate affair.
The film is slow. But that’s ok. It takes a good 20mins before the assault I mentioned above - the so-called ‘inciting incident’. Robbie and Cecilia become lost lovers who take the rest of the next 5 years through war and peace to find each other again. It sets up a passionate reunification and rekindling of their affair – the stuff great cinema romances are made of. Unfortunately the story is hampered by a third character, who turns out to be the lead character. Cecilia’s sister features prominently and is the cause of much of the conflict in the film and the title refers to her atonement of her sins.
At two hours and two mins there’s just not enough screen time to get to know any of these three characters. Wright cleverly tells many of the scenes from several points of the view. This is effective in showing how each of the three characters reacts to the conflict, but this also takes up valuable screen time. The film needed the extra 40mins the “English Patient” had to develop each character effectively. We never really feel the passion of Robbie and Cecilia’s affair grow and blossom and Cecilia’s sister Briony (Romola Garai) disappears too long during the second act before she makes her return.
The finale makes us re-evaluate everything we have just seen on screen and it gives the title greater meaning. Though it’s a dramatic reveal, the film is never clear as how to we should feel about the meddling Briony. This lack of emotional closure may work with a certain type of film, but a film like “Atonement” needs to be clear and succinct with its message.
“Atonement” aspires to have the same sweeping scale and tragic lost love as “The English Patient”. Wright does it all with one magnificent and much talked about shot – a five min unedited long take which follows James McAvoy’s character through the stationed troops at Dunkirk before the famous British retreat. It’s a fantastic shot featuring hundreds of extras on a beach and a hillside. The camera picks up and follows several characters throughout the shot and meanders a great distance across the beach, up a hill and through an enclosed encampment. The shot is great but few other shots can keep pace with this one. Therefore it becomes a glaring anomaly.
The similarities with “The English Patient” were obviously recognized by Wright as Mr. Minghella himself appears in a quick cameo towards the end as a television interviewer. It’s been a while since we’ve seen an unabashed romantic epic. I certainly welcome it, but it’s a long way from it’s rivaling its mentor. Enjoy.