December 13, 2007

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Atonement (R)
Keira Knightley is so pretty and James McAvoy is so pretty and wartime England — even besieged Dunkirk — is so pretty in Atonement, a beautiful-looking romantic tragedy that is just a wee bit boring.

OK, maybe more than a wee bit.

Cecilia Tallis (Knightley) is the oldest daughter of the kind of wealthy British family that has a big mansiony property in the country staffed by servants. One of those servants is a housekeeper whose son, Robbie (McAvoy), is working his way out of the downstairs part of the upstairs-downstairs social system with schooling at Oxford and plans to go into medicine. Though Cecilia and Robbie went to the same school, they pass by each other in a haughty silence, with Cecilia simmering with so much befuddled aggravation that they can only be in love.

This, however, is not what young Briony (Saoirse Ronan) sees when she sees Cecilia and Robbie seeming to argue by a fountain during a hot summer day in 1935. When Robbie appears to yell at her and Cecilia strips to her slip and dives in the fountain, Briony thinks she sees something much more sinister than the sort of humorous sexual tension actually taking place. But Briony is prone to this kind of heightened imagining. Her big plans for that evening’s dinner party include her, her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and Lola’s two younger brothers performing some melodrama-filled play she has just written. This pretend drama takes a back seat, however, when Briony is given a note by Robbie to give to Cecilia. He thinks he’s delivered a friendly overture to Cecilia, with whom he obviously has some kind of past, but he accidentally has delivered a far more overt message (never leave two identical notes right next to each other and then slip one into an envelope without looking), which Briony, in true young girl fashion, takes to mean something dangerous and scandalous.

While Briony obsesses over what she thinks is a shocking revelation of Robbie’s character, she misses a truly menacing series of events leading up to the evening’s dinner party. Later, as the blossoming love affair between Cecilia and Robbie and darker events involving Lola play out, Briony thinks these two separate plots are intertwined and, in a moment of righteousness and childish haste, accuses Robbie of a crime, leading to his arrest and imprisonment.

Years go by and Britain is now at war. Picking the army over jail, Robbie is now a soldier, slogging through the fields of France as he seeks the retreating Allied forces. Cecilia is living in London and working as a kind of nurse. She has broken off her contact with her family over the bitterness of the event years earlier but is still deeply in love with Robbie. Now 18, Briony (Romola Garai) has entered nursing school in what Cecilia and the audience come to view as an act of atonement for what happened when she was a child. As her realization of the horror of what she did deepens, so does her desperation to fix the trouble she caused and her sense of futility about how to go about that. It’s during these war years that she begins to write a novel which, years later, an older, established-author Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) finally finishes.

The fertile English countryside has never looked better than in the first part of Atonement’s tale. From the vegetation-filled fountain to the deep green landscape, you get the sense that not only are the characters simmering with passion but England itself is in heat. When Cecilia and Robbie have a conversation in a shadowy library, the room seems moodily lit, like a bedroom readied for romance.

Later, scenes of Robbie wondering aimlessly around Dunkirk capture the fear and the hopelessness of the men stranded before an approaching enemy. The beach where scores of soldiers stand staring across the channel is a mass of confused scenes (a group of men singing near a group frantically getting drunk) and hurried attempts to leave the enemy with nothing useful — mounted soldiers hold the reins of their horses as another soldier shoot them, a man destroys trucks by smashing the butt of his gun into their grills, breaking their radiators. Most Dunkirk-related movies I’ve seen have focused on the “miracle” part of the army’s eventual escape; few have so perfectly captured the pre-rescue terror.

Scenes of gray and muddy war are intercut with flashbacks or with scenes of more or less contemporaneous nursing scenes with a skillful use of camera work and a score that pulls all these different images together. The slamming type of a typewriter brilliantly provides the underlying percussion of this movie, setting the scene particularly well when Briony’s bothered mind is the story’s focus.

Atonement is an extremely well-executed movie. Well-executed but aggravating and, I must admit, boring at times. The book from which this movie comes may be beloved and a feat of subtlety and storytelling grace but, as presented here, the story, particularly some of the tangled early parts — the thing for which Briony must atone — don’t always make sense and require a little too much “that’s just the way things were” acceptance to make for a consistently believable story. And the Dunkirk stuff, while exceptionally well shot, doesn’t entirely feel like it’s telling the same story as the rest of the movie (a complaint I’ve seen and heard other film critics make).

As the movie plodded on, I began to feel the same sense of tedium that I did when watching The English Patient, thinking “oh, just die already.” Yes, everybody and everything is very good-looking, very artfully shot. But need we see all this fancy but meaningless stuff, sit through all the scenes of characters staring off into space while we try to decipher their inner life? And the movie’s conclusion, which isn’t the tragic shocker I sense the movie wants us to think it is, ultimately just underlines the idea that the past two hours of good manners and heaving-bosom drama were all for nothing. B-

Rated R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality. Directed by Joe Wright and written by Christopher Hampton (from a novel by Ian McEwan), Atonement is two hours and two minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Focus Features (Universal Pictures International).