Atonement: Film Review

Directed by: Joe Wright, Runtime: 123 minutes
Grade: A

If there are any two things dreaded in the world of cinema, they might be a director's sophomore slump and the "overhyped award trap" of a film. Seeing talent seep through the cracks in their second time amidst the craft can be a very sad sight. A few years back, director Joe Wright took the historically lauded novel, Pride and Prejudice, and crafted an authentically evocative experience that both stayed true to Jane Austen's potent lyricism and left widespread cinematic eyes enchanted. His freshmen attempt at feature-length storytelling was, and remains, a tremendous success. Atonement, quite contrarily to hovering curses, is a moving masterwork that bests his premiere film, one that's dramatic, artistic, beautifully shot, emotionally touching, and, to say it simply, just an astoundingly complete piece of heartbreaking cinema.

Set in mid-1930's England, Atonement adapts Ian McEwan's novel about Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a teenage writer wedged in her family's manor amongst the enchanting rustic countryside. There, she scribes plays and jostles across the grassy expanses pining after Robbie (James McAvoy), the family housekeeper's son. His infatuation, however, is engulfed with Cecilia (Keira Knightly), his summertime pupil and Briony's visiting older sister. One day, a day in which Briony is set to assemble one of her productions with other family members, she witnesses an argument between the two that results in Cecilia storming off, dripping wet, in a fit of anger. Briony doesn't initially see their passion, only Cecilia's fury, thus weaving together the fabric of her misguided bitterness.

Atonement remains gentle and wispy throughout its graceful, tension-mounting entrance; from Briony's enamored glances to Robbie's gruff smirks, it encapsulates a comforting tone within its gorgeously confined space. Part of the film's majestic beauty comes from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's impeccable photography, which is especially sensuous at the start. It blooms with a radiant glow, making certain to feel indulgently pure and almost heavenly from the beginning. Following Briony's numerous pathways through ivy tunnels and wood-clad hallways crafts immediacy, but a specific kind of immediacy that feels peaceful. Briony, impeccably portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, comes across as naturally tense, but with a spice for life that shines through her haunting glances.

"Haunting" cleverly describes the picture in itself, especially once the stigmatic letter changes hands. Its tonal volume begins to quickly darken when the film's spiteful wrath crosses paths with purity. At his own fault, Robbie mistakenly sends Cecilia one of his private, erotically lurid brainstorms, all typed on paper, by means of a misplaced letter set to be delivered by Briony. She, instead, cracks open Pandora's Box by prying that letter open in a flash of breathless intensity. There's a moment in which she hesitates before doing so; that quiet buzz in the air as she tersely fidgets with the envelope encapsulates the dormant, stoic energy present across the first act of the film. Appalled by the contents of a letter never meant to be read, Briony becomes infuriated with her crush. Through chance circumstances involving two lost family members later that evening, she falsely accuses Robbie of venturing aside from the search and committing a defamatory, sexually condemning atrocity. There's yet another rapturous point of "silent thunder" at Briony's pivotal moment of decisiveness to step up and taint Robbie's name, which really explodes in a wealth of dramatic magnetism.

Atonement, amidst phenomenally taut momentum, cultivates performance and artistry alike into one masterfully accomplished piece of dramatic vigor. It cannot be directly contributed to the stellar cast, the robust direction from Wright, or even the visual grandeur it grasps from its cinematography. No, it's the culmination of everything Wright accomplishes into one historically effervescent entity that really grabs the viewers by their soulful hearts and thrust them forward through its powerful, albeit perplexingly hard, material. Broken hearts are the core of the picture's intensity, tapping directly into gut-wrenching emotionality to unabashed degrees, and witnessing the plummet and awakening of all the characters gyrating around this blossoming piece of work. It gradually gets worse for everyone around the crumbling central friendships, and something about the mix of striking photography and bravura performances keeps us utterly vexed from beginning to end.

Though a discomforting tone resides in Saoirse Ronan as Briony at the start, the chemistry between Keira Knightley's Cecilia and James McAvoy's Robbie stretch its sincerity well across the film's divisive four year time lapse into the surmounting complexities of wartime Europe. After all, let's remember that the definition of atonement can be summed up as "making amends" or "reconciliation". It confronts the frailty of innocence, while also hinging on the strength of belief and posterity as the effects of malevolent actions run their course. Both Cecilia and Robbie must confront life after Briony's cataclysmic lie, offering some of the more simply potent themes within Atonement. It extends to the thresholds of World War II and Robbie's strained involvement in the evacuation at Dunkirk after he's forcefully enlisted. There's an incredible tracking shot here that follows Robbie and several other soldiers through the campsite; however, while we follow his pathway through the intricately crumbled land capsized with bodies, boats, and bonfires, James McAvoy's strained and sickly glances lend a pensive air about him. His desperation for life pours through amidst this crumbled gorgeousness, though trumped by his persistent hunger for Cecilia. Never does just one aesthetic or one performance truly stand out; almost always, it's that equilibrium that gives Atonement its richness.

Well, almost always. Possibly the most unique aesthetic of the film, aside from these seamlessly bleeding edits from paradise to war torn dilapidation, is this amazing score from composer Dario Marianelli that manages to stand out on more than a handful of occasions. Normally, discussions about original music revolving around artists like Clint Mansell or Alexandre Desplat focus on their sumptuousness or majesty, and nothing more. Marianelli's work on Atonement achieves, on top of those qualities, a certain inventive originality; he keeps rhythm in the film along with a series of typewriter clicks synched with splendid chords that struggle to keep speed with the rapid pace. Few musical cues can both be foreshadowing, tense, and striking, yet Marianelli's Academy-award winning composition grips it all in brusque fashion.

There are many of such nuances to be discovered and rediscovered within Wright's richly crafted layers of love's loss, vitality, and malignant destruction. Little camera tricks, musical cues, and minuscule mannerisms surface repeatedly even after indulging several times into Atonement's plummet into despondency. Marketing for this film has it all wrong; walking into this film expecting a whimsical romance that'll warm the heart is a lot like waltzing into a luxury car lot expecting to find an affordable beater. Once you've taken a look at the reality within Atonement, in its poetically melancholy and evocative strength, you're more than glad it wasn't what was to be expected. Wright's sophomore production is a beautifully sharp tour de force that, needless to say, shouldn't be missed.


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