Writer-director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement” is a handsomely mounted bore, equally beautiful and unsatisfying.
The first third of the film is set in Merchant Ivory’s stolid version of England; everyone’s rich, beautiful and bored. Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan), a precocious 12-year-old, wiles away her days on her family’s estate, writing plays and irritating the servants. Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) lies around on a fainting couch, smoking and pouting, because the hunky gardener Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) has not responded to her advances. Will the spoiled, sullen Cecilia get to sleep with the handsome help?
Fear not, gentle reader: she does. Unfortunately, Briony also has a schoolgirl crush on Robbie. After walking in on Cecilia and Robbie’s tryst, Briony falls into a confused fit of jealousy and falsely accuses Robbie of a horrible crime. He’s arrested and conscripted into the army, and Cecilia is left heartbroken.
Then the film jumps ahead five years. World War II is at full boil, and Robbie’s in France in the thick of it. The Talis sisters are estranged, working as nurses in different military hospitals. Cecilia continues to see Robbie during leaves from the front. Briony, now an adult, regrets her lie and the harm its caused.
It should be said that Wright is a true talent as a director. He has a distinctive visual style, often using a handheld to give what could have been a staid chamber piece a much-needed vibrancy. In one virtuose scene, Robbie arrives on a beach where thousands of despondent British soldiers wait at a wrecked boardwalk for transit home. It is a place meant to evoke hell, the very end of hope, and Wright breathes it all in in a single, unbroken tracking shot reminiscent of the audacious car chase from “Children of Men”; while officers execute horses, wretched soldiers slump in busted ferris wheels and gather to sing out sadly to the vast ocean.
But impressive visuals cannot save a film betrayed by its script. The proceedings lack genuine emotion, because the characters lack genuine depth. They are all generically aristocratic, especially in the beginning. Other than a moving scene in which Briony pretends to be the girlfriend of a delusional, dying soldier, I never felt that Briony did much in the way of, well, atonement. What effect did all that guilt have on Briony? The script never delves, and Briony remains a cipher to us.
And much of what we see is muddied by an abrupt twist ending. Suddenly an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) shows up, looks into the camera, and explains that much of what we ‘d just seen was an exercise in wish fulfillment.
And a waste of time for the audience. What was and was not real? If much of what we saw didn’t really happen, then what was the point? And the most baffling question of all… why have so many people trumpeted this confused, little muddle as the finest of 2007?