“‘Atonement’ director fills every frame with enchantment and utter mastery
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave
Opens Dec. 7 at the Angelikas in Dallas and Plano.
2 hrs., 2 min. R
Not since Quentin Tarantino followed “Reservoir Dogs” with “Pulp Fiction” has a director avoided the sophomore jinx with such a vengeance as Joe Wright does with “Atonement.” It’s a sublimely, astonishingly good film one that most filmmakers spend their careers aspiring to.
Wright, who breathed new life into “Pride & Prejudice” two years ago, tackles a less familiar novel by Ian McEwan, brilliantly adapted by Christopher Hampton. The book was written in this decade, but most of the story takes place in 1935 and 1940. Like “The Children’s Hour,” written in 1934, it concerns the consequences of a spiteful girl’s accusation. The 30s must have been a good decade for bad girls.
On the hottest day of 1935 the Tallis family is entertaining on their English country estate. Oldest son Leon (Patrick Kennedy) is coming to visit, bringing along his eligible friend Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), who owns a chocolate factory and is already planning to profiteer from the coming war. Also visiting are cousins from the North: adolescent Lola (Juno Temple) and her younger twin brothers.
Nothing escapes the eye of 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), who is writing a play for the occasion. She watches as a long-budding romance finally blossoms between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son the Tallises put through Cambridge.
Briony, who has a crush on Robbie herself, sees everything but filters it through a child’s understanding. When she intercepts an erotic note from Robbie to Cecilia, she shares it with Lola, concluding that Robbie is a “sex maniac.”
Events that occur later that evening are interpreted by Briony like the work of a sex maniac. And she the only witness accuses Robbie.
At this point “Atonement” jumps forward four years (actually closer to five).
Robbie has been released from prison to serve in the military and is part of the English force fleeing the German advance in France. His arrival at Dunkirk cues the film’s bravura scene, a five-and-a-half-minute shot without a cut as Robbie surveys the beach and the town, both teeming with life as a thousand soldiers await evacuation.
Cecilia, estranged from her family, is serving as a nurse. Briony is training as a nurse by way of penance, having realized the enormity of her lie. She tries to reopen communications with her sister but Cecilia rebuffs her until Briony forces the issue.
An epilogue set in the present, practically a one-woman show by Vanessa Redgrave, shows things in a different light.
The plot could seem trivial in lesser hands. But Wright’s treatment of Hampton’s screenplay gives it the heft of classic literature. Early scenes and occasional later ones are propelled by typewriter sounds laying a beat for Dario Marianelli’s score, an effectively daring switch from the usual reverent, bucolic sounds attached to films of this type.
The period is reinforced with expressions like “the cat’s pajamas” and “you’re a real brick” and, in an anachronism, the singing of “The White Cliffs of Dover” the year before it was written. After two successful period pieces, it may not be too soon to appoint Joe Wright as James Ivory’s successor-designate. Wright fills every frame of “Atonement” with enchantment and an utter mastery of the cinematic medium that’s rarely seen.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 7, 2007