As the annual, awards-season serving of British drawing room drama, Atonement is a burnished, largely gorgeous literary adaptation. Like No Country for Old Men, Joe Wright's film is a superb example of the technical craft of filmmaking overshadowing the importance of a sound, seamless narrative underpinning.
Admittedly, condensing Ian McEwan's acclaimed, complex novel for the screen is no small task, one assigned to the quill of Christopher Hampton, who previously adapted screenplays for Dangerous Liaisons and The Quiet American. The structure of McEwan's four-part narrative remains, beginning with the marvelous exposition given to the crucial opening act set during 1935 at the bucolic Tallis family country estate.
It is then and there that the story is set in motion, when young Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a budding writer and vaguely eerie preteen, witnesses, with crucially limited comprehension, the awkward dalliance between Cecilia (Keira Knightley), her older sister, and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family's housekeeper. More misunderstandings follow, fueled by Briony reading a saucy note Robbie inadvertently sends to Cecilia, and later interrupting their sexual coupling in the family's library. Thus the stage is set for the jealous, confused Briony to falsely accuse Robbie of raping her young cousin, who is also staying in the household. Robbie is subsequently disgraced and imprisoned, but even worse, from the viewpoint of the romantic movie universe, the star-crossed lovers are forcibly separated.
What keeps Atonement afloat, besides some fine performances from McAvoy and Knightley, is Wright's creative camerawork and sublime attention to detail. Wright paints a captivating canvas throughout the first act, balancing a time-jumping narrative with sumptuous photography. Having now thrice directed Knightley—together with Pride & Prejudice and her current television commercial for Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle perfume—Wright transforms his muse merely removing her foot from a shoe in anticipation of lovemaking into a display that is both titillating and exquisite (in an interview, Knightley reveals that Wright actually storyboarded the moment).
Wright's artistry reaches its zenith at the start of the story's second act with a five-minute-plus Steadicam shot across France's Dunkirk beach, where retreating soldiers waited to be rescued from the German onslaught in 1940. The sequence is not only a grand mise en scène—comprising 1,000 extras and assorted ship mockups, vehicles and horses—but deftly traverses the many faces of war's dismal circus: death, heroism, depravity, patriotism and chaos.
Unfortunately, this meticulously executed scene is also a pivot point for the narrative—for in its remaining run time, the story slips into banality and strains for seriousness. While part one is a portrait of atmosphere and character development, the rest of the film feels compressed and predictable, replete with de rigueur regrets and recriminations. The film's middle acts dramatize the reunion of Cecilia and Robbie, who enlists with the British Army in exchange for his early release from prison. We also encounter an 18-year-old Briony (now played by Romola Garai), who works as a nurse in London, performing hard, gruesome labor—less out of patriotic duty, we sense, than to atone for the wrong she inflicted upon Robbie and her sister.
It is the final act, however, where Atonement reaches highest yet falls shortest. In McEwan's book, this fourth part, written from the perspective of an older Briony in 1999, is the most audacious. It further elucidates the often porous barrier separating fiction and reality, forcing the reader to confront the same perils of perception that beset young Briony.
Wright makes the misstep (undoubtedly due to length and budgetary considerations) of altering the novel's narrative frame—a family reunion in the present-day Briony's honor—to a nondescript television sound stage where Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), now a successful novelist in her 70s, is being interviewed about her latest book. The milieu feels detached from the rest of the story, as does Redgrave's charismatic, erudite elocution from Briony's earlier muted, even obtuse personas.
The artist's battle with the creative process and the balancing act between reality and fantasy have been tackled onscreen often and recently with more aplomb (Swimming Pool) and originality (Adaptation; Stranger Than Fiction). Atonement's epilogue comes off more as an afterthought, a footnote to the Brit-lit period piece it yearns to preserve ... at least until the end of Oscar season.
Atonement opens Friday in select theaters.
Raleigh filmmaker Neal Hutcheson returns to the Appalachian tableau that marked his previous efforts—The Last One, Mountain Talk and The Queen Family—in The Prince of Dark Corners, which makes its North Carolina broadcast premiere this week.
The film tells the tale of once-notorious outlaw Lewis Redmond, who roamed the western Carolinas during the Reconstruction era, bootlegging and fighting revenuers. The framework for Prince of Dark Corners is principally author/ folklorist Gary Carden's one-man stage play—with Milton Higgins portraying Redmond—interspersed with re-enactments and vintage photographs. The film begins a bit unevenly, with many of Higgins' comic quips falling flat without the affirmation of an audience reaction. However, the story arc gradually crescendos to a dramatic and unexpected climax.
One quibble is that the film fails to fully bolster the assertion in its press materials that "Redmond was the most famous outlaw in the country, outshining contemporaries Billy the Kid and Jesse James." This premise may be more convincingly explored in the documentary The Outlaw Lewis Redmond, which accompanies The Prince of Dark Corners DVD. Still, Hutcheson's film provides an earnest insight into a long-lost piece of Tarheel lore. Catch it Thursday, Jan. 3, at 10 p.m. on UNC-TV.