When I first saw Joe Wright’s take on that old Austen warhorse, Pride and Prejudice, I thought it was a fun angle on something that had been done the same way for many decades. Over time, and re-watchings, I began to appreciate the tight piece of machinery it is, with every scene leading into the next logically and with tremendous urgency. Emma Thompson’s punch-ups captured much of the spirit of Austen (for a modern audience) while condensing the experience. It is the most viscerally exciting interpretation of an any Austen story ever. And, he knows how to shoot Keira Knightly.
So, I was looking forward to Atonement, though I didn’t expect it to be as good, despite the critical praise heaped on it, just because the source material was unlikely to be of the same caliber.
And as I’m watching, I’m seeing the same sort of artistry: Gorgeous cinematography, with composition that reminds of the great James Wong Howe, fine acting, music that cleverly incorporates the typewriter clacks as a sort of sinister percussion. Excellent choice of matching children with their older versions–though I guess, since Juno Temple played herself at both ages, they only had to match up the 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan with Romola Garai (of Amazing Grace).
So, I ask myself, “Why am I not enjoying this?” And my answer is the terribly unprofessional, “It’s just not very good.” The story, I mean, and as it’s portrayed in this filming. This is really the story of Briony Tallis (Ronan and Garai) who tells a lie that ruins two people’s lives, and comes to regret it later.
I mean, that’s it. Confused girl tells lie. Bad things happen. Girl grows up and regrets telling lie.
Of the bad things that happen, the movie focuses on what happens to James McAvoy at Dunkirk, where he’s forced to go (else stay in jail). This is some stunning set design and photography and 20-30 minutes of irrelevance. There’s some resonance added by the end scene, but it really doesn’t excuse the fact that, if the movie is going to be about bad things happening, we really need to see the main character’s reaction to those things.
And we do, a bit, but the bad things she experiences are only after the fact of her regret. In other words, we see her before her change, we see her after her change, but it’s only getting older (and gaining understanding of sex) that causes the change, and we don’t see that.
Clearly Briony has a crush on Robbie, so is her lie an act of jealousy? Doesn’t seem to be. Her character has a longing for Robbie and Cecelia’s relationship, without any of the hatefulness. Basically, her motives for telling the lie come down to not understanding what she sees, therefore her realization of her error comes down to a big “Whoops!”.
And we’re left with a main character (who doesn’t get much screen time, perhaps because she’s not a big box office draw) who is a coward.