Most of the cast breathe heavily and in high volume from some degree of desire or fear or guilt.
For those of us who havenít read the book, ďAtonementĒ can be a frustration. In a positive view, it could be that director Joe Wright is trying to paint in the abstract, giving us pieces of the novel here, and then there, counting on the fragments to convey the atmosphere of English country life from 1935 into World War II. The result is a confusion of sudden cuts and flashbacks.
In addition to the confusion factor, there is the matter of being distracted by a loud and intrusive sound track. The best soundtracks support a story without telling you how to feel. This one tells you when to be sad or scared or angry. Then there is the problem of the heavy breathing. Most of the cast are breathing heavily and in high volume from some degree of desire or fear or guilt.
Kiera Knightly, whose role is actually smaller than the second lead, dominates by sheer force of style. The sex against the library bookshelves in the spectacular green dress is one for the ages. But as much as Knightly holds our attention, it is Saoirse Ronan, who plays Briony at 13 who gives the movie its substance.
Watching from a window in the country mansion, Briony sees her sister Cecilia (Knightly) and Robbie (James McAvoy) play out an incident that is the core of the story. In what may be a willful misinterpretation of what she sees, Briony constructs and tells a tale that sends Robbie first to jail and then to the army at the beginning of the war. Her act reverberates horribly through the lives of all three of them over the years. At 18, Briony, now a wartime nurse, understands her adolescent guilt. In older age, as a successful novelist (Vanessa Redgrave) she wraps up the story in a series of stunning revelations about how she chose to atone for her actions. The last quarter of the movie is surely one of the most powerful endings to grace a movie in years. And Redgrave delivers it in a calm voice, no heavy breathing.
Going back to the idea that director Wright may be painting an abstraction, the war scenes simply look disturbingly fake, perhaps deliberately so. The 300,000 soldiers waiting for rescue on the beach at Dunkirk are either a symbol of that great effort or a failed depiction depending on how you see it. In either case, it is the soldiers who are now doing the heavy breathing (fear)) on the soundtrack.
Because we are given none of the background to the romance between Cecilia and Robbie, they canít come alive. We are told little about this family. Often, we donít even know where we are. The filmmakers spring things on us without providing a frame of reference. I simply canít find the heart in this movie. You must be well aware by now that the Golden Globes people disagree with me entirely.
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