Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Atonement: Grade C

Atonement (2007)
Kiera Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave; Director Joe Wright.

This will be a satisfying romance for many people, but I am not one of them. An alarmingly thin Kiera Knightley delivers razor’s edge acting, but that is not enough to salvage this plodding melodrama. Just before World War I, an aristocratic young English girl (Ronan) sees an argument between Knightley and the gardener’s son (McAvoy) and interprets it as sexual aggression against her sister. Later she walks in on an intimate scene between them and makes the same Oedipal interpretation, leading her to falsely accuse McAvoy of a crime. Implausibly, that is sufficient to send him to prison. I suppose we are to assume that English law was heavily biased toward the aristocracy in 1914. From prison the young man goes to the war in France and commences the middle hour of the movie in which he tromps around in his army helmet. There is a grand panorama shot reminiscent of Flags of our Fathers, and one impressively long dolly shot, but it all just brings the romantic story to a complete halt. War is hell, but it would have been better to show him suffering in prison, since presumably he would have fought in the war regardless.

Finally the estranged lovers are re-united after the war, or are they? There are replays of several scenes, each from a different character’s point of view, to convey ambiguity about what really happens. Even that contrivance, however, does not mitigate the dishonest ending, which tries to have its cake and eat it too. Atonement for the young girl’s lie is only important if you believe it caused the destruction of the romance, but there is little evidence that it did, or even that it was much of a romance to begin with. On the plus side, the sets and costumes are sumptuous and convincing, especially life in the aristocratic castle. Knightley is fantastic, easily as good as Nicole Kidman. Vanessa Redgrave, at 71, is riveting when she delivers her few lines. But overt sentimentality does not make a good story, for me anyway. If the filmmakers thought the drama was so strong they should have omitted the hyperactive swelling strings and trumpeting French horns that indicated when you were supposed to feel something. I can see where this might have been a good psychological novel, but as a movie, it only adds up to soap.

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