Keira Knightley, James Mcavoy
3.5 out of 5 stars for romantics
2 out of 5 stars for hedonists
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
(editor's note: Though I don't disagree with MJ's review and would strongly suggest the book over the movie, the girl in me must recommend the movie on the strength of the Green Dress which is uncredited but deserving of its own award.)
I have atoned for my many sins, having only dozed off twice while sitting through the dry as a doggie bone romance of “Atonement.” The film was recently nominated for seven Oscars and wound up winning just one – for best original score. The Academy can be shockingly wrongheaded when it comes to doling out awards, but in this case they got it right. There’s no doubt that “Atonement” deserved to be recognized, but “No Country For Old Men,” was the rightful winner for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor. “Atonement” is a lavish period piece, manna for the eyes, and the music is lush and elegant. But stunning? Spellbinding? Those words best describe “No Country For Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood.” “Atonement” is a Lifetime movie with a bazillion dollar budget.
“Atonement” draws its strength from its landed gentry opulence, gritty hospital scenes and revolutionary, sweeping recreation of the British debacle at Dunkirk. The five minute Dunkirk tracking scene was shot with 1,000 extras in only four takes, and is one of the most ambitious, realistic and heart-wrenching depictions of war gone wrong to ever hit the screen. If director Joe Wright had made “Dunkirk” I’d stand in the street with a sandwich board proclaiming it the best film of the year.
That having been said, the romantic plot, the real meat of “Atonement,” moves with the speed of an arthritic butler, which means not at all. I know, English parlor dramas are all about sighs, glances, and what’s implied rather than said, but few of the characters in this movie have the slightest hint of a pulse and nothing of substance to talk about even after the big scandal. The central character, 13 year-old Briony Tallis (talented moppet Saoirse Rowan), is so bound up she twitters and blinks like an ostrich who’s about to stuff her head in a hole to avoid reality. The ill-fated lovers, Cecilia and Robbie are understandably conscious of their social standing (she’s rich, he weeds the garden), but are so smitten they talk in convoluted codes rather than actually speaking to one another. When they finally give in to their low-key passion, it’s in the library on the main floor of a mansion that looks like it sports 60 rooms to be very ungentlemanly and unladylike in. What, you two couldn’t sneak off to a deserted upper floor? The potentially scandalous romp between Cecilia and Robbie resembles a pair of mating squids and sets off the ire of Briony, who walks in on the coupling couple. Briony has a fanciful crush on Robbie and exacts her revenge on lawn boy when her cousin, Lola, is molested later that evening in the woods. Briony claims to have seen Robbie trying to make the beast with two backs with Lola, who goes along with the accusation because the truth might cast her in the role of willing participant rather than rape victim. Briony’s vengeful lie changes the lover’s lives forever. (Hell hath no fury like a teen geek scorned.) Robbie goes to jail and is branded a drooling child molester. When the Second World War breaks out, he’s given a choice, serve your country or serve the rest of your sentence.
I repeatedly had to remind myself I was supposed to be paying attention to what was going on. I wanted to give “Atonement” a four star review kids, and if I was in a committed, till-death-do-us-part relationship I might have. I guess my romantic side died from disinterest long ago -- or I simply don’t like watching films where the sound of my own snoring wakes me up.
“Atonement” is in the same category as “Wuthering Heights” – a star-crossed romance that’s a two hanky weeper. You’d think having had my love life sabotaged by a scurrilous lie I’d be a bit more sympathetic to Robbie and Cecilia’s plight. (In a way I am, hence the separate ratings.) At 17, I fell harder than an anvil factory for a girl I was convinced was the love of my life. Let’s call her C.C. for continuity’s sake. My betrayal came when a mutual friend told C.C. something so heinous about me she never spoke to me again and ran away like Flo Jo every time she saw me coming. Under the threat of disembowelment, our mutual “friend” admitted she’d lied, but never told me what cooked up crock she’d shared with C.C. My betrayer’s parting words were, “Of course you’ll fall in love again.” She was wrong. I lost my father, grandparents, an uncle and enough cousins to populate Frostbite Falls, Minnesota all within three months, and I’ve never felt anything as painful as the Grand Canyon-sized hole my aborted relationship with C.C. left behind. So you see I fully understand where “Atonement” is coming from. I just don’t like the laborious path it takes to get there.
As for the acting…I expect to take some heat for saying this, but Keira Knightley needs a big sandwich. The woman has a bad case of lollypop head. She can’t weigh more than 90 pounds and most of it is her oversized cranium. At one point she strips to her skivvies and jumps into a fountain to retrieve a piece of a valuable vase. When she comes up soaking wet with everything virtually see through, there’s nothing to see through. I know, it’s irrelevant for your ladies, but would have been like a biscuit to a starving horn dog reviewer whose head was already bouncing off the table. When James McAvoy (Robbie) gets an eyeful of his English Olive Oyl he looks away, and so will you. That having been said, Knightley may not stir the blood, but she conveys a convincing air of lovelorn doom. She’s no Merle Oberon or Vivian Leigh, but is one of the few actors allowed to show some verve and spunk in a film that wallows in its subtlety.
James McAvoy adequately fills the role of railroaded hero Robbie, a commoner with such high standards he doesn’t put up a fight when he’s wrongly accused of a dastardly crime. Robbie winds up in the big house, still nursing his longing for Cecilia and likely harboring a get even Jones for Briony. McAvoy gives a strong performance as Robbie by essentially being weak. He’s weak at the knees over Cecilia, powerless socially to challenge the accusations against him, and in his scenes at Dunkirk, he’s physically drained. Except for the scene in Cecilia’s apartment when he and Cecilia confront a now 18 year-old Briony, McAvoy has to let his character’s strong sense of morals do the acting for him. It’s not any easy task, and McAvoy would have benefited from a script that allowed him a chance to show more emotion. But when McAvoy’s tragic character is struggling through the madness at Dunkirk, you’ll pull for him to return to the arms of his beloved, so score a job well done for James.
The three actresses portraying Briony Tallis at various stages of her life have varying degrees of success. Saorise Ronan received an Oscar nomination for carrying the weight of playing Briony at age 13. Whenever an actor is effective enough to make you forget they’re still a child they’ve done a good job. Ronan twitches like a pubescent Don Knotts at times, but does so consistently. In the end, she’s a better Briony than exalted acting legend Vanessa Redgrave, who portrays the dying Briony, an acclaimed author, at age 77. Redgrave has to keep pace with the Briony’s jumpy personality (as established by Ronan), so you don’t get to see her typical Shakespearian fire. Ramola Garai’s overly cautious performance as an 18 year-old Briony gets a mulligan because she was the last actress cast to play the role. The Jill Ireland look alike spends most of her time on screen pop-eyed and scampering about the halls of a hospital like a mouse with her tail on fire, but is involved in one of the movies meatier and affecting scenes in which she comforts a dying French soldier.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the foppish Paul Marshall, privileged heir to a chocolate factory, who plans to cash in by selling his candy to the British army when the war breaks out. A visiting college friend of Cecilia’s brother Leon (a bland Patrick Kennedy), Marshall takes a fancy to Briony’s 15 year-old cousin Lola Quincy (Rosey-cheeked Juno Temple, looking older than her real life 19 years). Faster than you can say, “Have some candy little girl?” Cumberbatch’s lecherous intent toward Lola demonstrates that rich snakes resort to the same crass come ons and hormonal misjudgment as folks on the dole. Temple’s Lolita-like qualities make up for Knightley’s lack of appeal. Paul and Lola’s shallow, lustful relationship is a mirror image of Cecilia and Robbie’s more chaste, romantic love affair. Maybe I’ve dwelled along life’s dark road for too long, but I found the chemistry between Paul and Lola more energetic and realistic than that of Cecilia and Robbie, and could have used more of their back story as a balance between “pure” and “lustful” love.
Timeless love stories transcend stilted dialogue and static scenes. “Atonement” does not. Witness Robbie’s opening voiceover:
“Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume. The one I had been planning on that evening walk. I can become again the man who once crossed the surrey park at dusk in my best suit, swaggering on the promise of life, the man who, with clarity of passion, made love to you in the library. The story can resume. I will return. Find you, love you, marry you and live without shame.”
I would have lost C.C. a lot sooner if I’d uttered such sentimental drivel, and Robbie’s opening voiceover represents the best passage in the movie. At least you still have the scenes at Dunkirk to marvel at.
The expanded DVD makes it easier to atone and includes deleted scenes, commentary by director Joe Wright, and two features, “Bringing the Past to Life: The Making of Atonement,” and “From Novel to Screen: Adapting A Classic.” “The Making of Atonement” is highlighted by interviews with Wright, cast members, and producer Paul Webster, among others. The cast is as cordial off screen as off, particularly toward newcomer Saoirse Rowan, who is as bright and talented off screen as on. Knightley is sprightly and taken with the film’s costumes and the grandeur of Stokesay Court, which served as the Tallis’ mansion. McAvoy sports a distinguished Scottish brogue and mirrors his character’s humility. Summing up the film’s intent, McAvoy says, “It’s a story about storytelling.” Wright provides additional insight: “(Atonement) lulls you into lyrical passages then slams you.”
“The Making of Atonement” is highlighted by the “Retreat To Dunkirk” section, where the viewer gets an insider’s look at how the film’s most stunning sequences were shot. Lensed in the small seaside English town of Redcar, the Dunkirk beach scene cost a million pounds and cast a thousand locals as extras. The most amazing aspects of the project are the speed at which it was shot, (in order to avoid the incoming tide) and the historical authenticity.
When people talk about timeless romantic movies like “Gone Wind The Wind,” “Casablanca” or even “Ghost” twenty years from now, I’m willing to bet my ascot “Atonement” doesn’t make the top ten. Take a poll of the most memorable movies with the best cinematography and “Atonement” might get my vote, but beautiful isn’t always interesting. If that was the case, Sophia Loren would be the Pope, Catherine Deneuve would rule France and Penelope Cruz would qualify as a modern day Queen Isabella. (In this election year I’m staying clear of elected officials in the U.S.)
“Atonement” is certainly worth a look, especially if you what to slip back to a time of social teas, honor, chivalry and romance. But don’t let your expectations get the better of you. “Atonement” is like that pretty woman (or man) you’ve been chasing all you life. When you finally get a chance to connect, it’s disappointing to discover she’s wonderful to look at, she’s polite and intelligent, but she’s also a deadly bore.