Chalk up another stunning achievement for Joe Wright, who must now be recognized as an auteur with few equals of his age and experience in world cinema. With Atonement, an exacting and relentlessly faithful adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2002 novel about the seismic repercussions of a betrayal in a WWII-era English family, Wright has shaped and refined that uniquely blended style -- at once as calculating as Kubrick and yet receptive and attentive to intimacy and raw feeling -- that made his debut film, 2005's Pride & Prejudice, such an unexpected and welcome surprise. Much like Anthony Minghella, his more senior contemporary who has a bold acting cameo in this film, Wright is an artist who staunchly refuses to run away from the artificiality of cinema. Instead, he co-opts and embraces it. He does so in big ways, such as in a splurgy and acrobatic tracking shot that occurs halfway through Atonement and takes about six minutes to complete, and in smaller, throwaway moments, such as an aggressively painted three-shot on a boat, with Keira Knightley posed exactly in the center.
The year is 1935 and Knightley is Cecilia, a chain-smoking waif who, despite the advantages of her upper class existence, seems on the verge of expiring through sheer boredom. Her only noticeable activity is her flirtation with Robbie (James McAvoy) who is, he tells us, "not a toff." In other words, his situation is closer to that of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice -- he knows how to move in high society, but has not yet found a means to anchor himself to it. When we first see Cecilia and Robbie together, it's through the spying eyes of Cecilia's little sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a young teen whose natural tendency is toward fantasy and make-believe -- a passion that's only partly diverted into useful pursuits, like writing. As the movie opens, we see Briony finishing one of her childish plays and recruiting the household members to put it on. Later, she watches from afar as Cecilia and Robbie flirt by an outdoor fountain -- he accidentally breaks a vase, and she sinks into the water to fetch a piece of it, before stepping out again in a mostly transparent dress.
Robbie's near-violent lust for Cecilia causes him to make a silly, jarring mistake. He puts down on paper something so modernly vulgar that I'm not even 100 percent sure it would have registered as aggressively filthy to a 30s reader. Nevertheless, the dominoes fall in just such a way that his doodling ultimately becomes key to the unraveling of several lives. Just as in the book, the film tells its story in three autonomous parts -- the first involves that mistake, the second explores its aftermath, and the third is where the atonement of the title comes into play. There's no ostentatious timeline-shuffling, but there are turns taken that ultimately put the reality of certain events into play, and give the film an overarching structure that's not apparent until the end, unless you know the book. In other words, it's delicate, fragile material, but handled here with sterling craftsmanship. In fact, the highest praise might be to simply point out that the dreaded quality of 'novelness' that tends to weigh down most films based on dense and complicated books, is invisible here.
If there's a weak link amongst the three parts of the film -- and there isn't, really -- it would probably be the second part, which is mostly concerned with a stand-alone war story. It must be said that the visuals in this section deserve a standing ovation -- I especially loved the way the tracking shot kept returning to a smoke-obscured ferris wheel overlooking the British evacuation of Dunkirk beach -- but there are long stretches of time where we in the audience are anxious to return to the film's central mysteries, and we can sense that forward movement has stopped for the moment. Also, as it's already been noted elsewhere, Atonement is a rare film that's too short for its own good. There's a rushed quality that creeps into the first part here and there, and the third part, especially, could benefit from a more expansive (and dare I say, more extravagant) presentation. You'll know what I'm talking about once you've seen it. There's a missing thirty minutes of this film somewhere, I've decided, and I'm reserving final judgment until I see it all.
Like Minghella, Sam Mendes, and other new, serious talents like Sofia Coppola, Joe Wright is returning composition to where it belongs -- the forefront of concerns of a worthwhile director. Every shot in Atonement, not to mention Pride & Prejudice, is intensely labored over and carries to the audience as many stories and stimulants to thought as any great painting can. That this can be carried off without loss of narrative focus or without the whole enterprise immediately sinking into the territory of the self-conscious or the pretentious is a whole other level of accomplishment that will have to be examined in more detail later. For now, what will matter to the audience is simply that the movie works. Atonement is at once a thinking man's mystery, a teary-eyed period romance with an actress of impressively rising star quality and a rousing, explosion-filled war movie to boot. It's also deeply thought-provoking material, asking each audience member how far they might be willing to go, in both their public and private worlds, to correct a life-changing mistake.
Public TIFF screenings of Atonement will be held Monday, September 10th at 9pm and Wednesday, September 12th at 2:30pm.