With all the hype surrounding Joe Wright’s Atonement and the pedigree involved in its making, I had no doubt that I would like the film. After all, the director and his muse, Keira Knightly, breathed new life into Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice two years ago, turning that old chestnut into an unabashedly romantic and genuinely moving film. As a film lover, I was also eager to witness Wright’s “stunning,” unbroken five-minute tracking shot that showcases the carnage of war, which has already been heralded as a milestone in cinema.
Imagine my surprise when after seeing this film I was thinking of Gertrude Stein’s famous statement about Oakland, Calif. (“There is no there, there.”) instead of wracking my brain for accolades of my own.
Overly-long, sporting a bloated narrative and featuring self-indulgent performances and direction, Atonement is the 21st century version of The English Patient, a film that critics and viewers alike feel they must laud and accept because it appears to be profound and tasteful, thus giving its supporters those same qualities by proxy, but is in fact empty and manipulative. Beautifully shot by Seamus McGarvey and acted with all the profundity its cast can muster, Wright and his crew obviously set out to make an important film, as well as a work of art that comments profoundly on the human condition. Many have already been taken on by the fact that the film appears to have these qualities when, in fact, it is nothing but an overwrought melodrama sporting an ending that had me scratching my head and saying, “That’s all there is to this?!?”
As adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan, the story takes place in England just before the outbreak of World War II. The Tallis family is “old money” and they’ve got the mansion, the grounds and the toys to prove it. The eldest daughter of the clan, Cecilia (Knightly) is bored and has no particular plans for her life, however she does harbor a secret love for Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), who works on the estate. Having recently graduated from Cambridge, thanks to his hard work and the tuition paid by Cecilia’s father, Turner is eager to set out and start his own life. However, these plans are shattered after he makes an innocent mistake regarding a piece of correspondence to Cecilia, which is found by her younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan). Harboring a crush of her own for Turner, she jealously accuses him of a heinous crime he did not commit, which results in him being sent to prison, where his sentence is later commuted after he agrees to join the army at the outbreak of the war.
While I cannot reveal what happens in the movie’s second and third acts, though I’d like to in this case, suffice it to say that what ensues is narratively artificial and borders on the ridiculous. The tale of these separated lovers proceeds at a snail’s pace, which allows us to analyze the numerous plot holes it sports. For instance, the dreaded mistake Turner makes in regards to the letter he writes Cecilia is an unbelievable act and reeks of desperation. This is only outdone by the film’s climax, an anti-climactic twist that’s unsatisfying because it’s a brazen manipulation and more than a bit cheap.
As for Wright’s tracking shot, this self-indulgent, meandering trip up and down a European beach that contains a wide variety of tattered soldiers and equipment is proof positive that just because you can move the camera, doesn’t mean that you should. If a dramatic or comedic moment can be heightened or underscored by making the camera dip, dive and glide over a vast expanse, then by all means it should be done. The Coen brothers know this (Raising Arizona), director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) knows this and Orson Welles (Touch of Evil) really had a handle on it.
In an age in which movie theaters screen so much garbage, it may seem overly harsh to savage the film. However, there have been far better movies released this year that did not get half the attention this one has and as such it seems only right that it be pointed out that while others may wish to dress this film up with accolades and trinkets, Atonement is a movie that in years to come will be recognized as sporting nothing but a bloated reputation.