"Atonement" is based upon the acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan. Though unread by myself, the story lends itself to heightened melodrama and bittersweet tragedyelements that, when well-written, make for a riveting page-turner. The filmic adaptation, as directed by Joe Wright (2005's "Pride & Prejudice") and written by Christopher Hampton (2002's "The Quiet American"), is on shakier ground. Cobbled into a two-hour frame, the profundity that Wright and Hampton strive for is never achieved because the would-be encompassing love story at its center isn't given enough time to build and breathe. The non-sequential, effectively disorienting order in which events occur, alternating between points-of-view and swirling back on itself as crucial missing gaps are filled in, almost redeems the flaws of the project. Almost.
In the lush English countryside, circa 1935, 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is an aspiring writer who has just completed her first play. When she spots older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) in a compromising position with her paramour, servant's son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), and later nosily reads an explicit, mistakenly-sent letter meant for Cecilia's eyes only, Briony's imagination gets the best of her. Partially out of boredom, partially due to her own immaturity, and partially because of her inability to understand the things she has seen and the sheer magnitude of her actions, Briony falsely points out Robbie as the culprit behind a sexual assault she happens upon. This accusation incontrovertibly alters the lives of Cecilia and Robbie forever, leading the cowardly, guilt-ridden Briony down a path of unforgivable regret that spans over seventy years.
"Atonement" is an auspiciously structured but somewhat emotionally distaff drama that doesn't reach a full catharsis until the surprising final minutes turn the story on its head. Before this point, the film clings to the intricate editing by Paul Tothill as a means of making up for the story's deficiencies. By witnessing Briony's side of key events before turning back the clock and viewing it from the perspectives of Robbie and Cecilia, director Joe Wright does an immaculate job in the opening fifty minutes of showing that every story has two sides and whether one side believes they are right or not does not guarantee their "truth" to be correct.
As the young Briony, newcomer Saoirse Ronan exhibits an outward wisdom beyond her years that turns out to simply be the character's way of compensating for her age and inexperience. As her 18-year-old self, by now a war nurse and ashamed of the choices she made as a child, Romola Garai (2006's "Scoop
") is an uncanny match for Ronan and seamlessly takes over the role. Vanessa Redgrave (2007's "Evening
") also briefly appears as the older Briony, emphatically drawing the film to a close.
What Briony does as a 13-year-old is, indeed, misguided and wrong, but the initial cost that Cecilia and Robbie must pay because of her lies lacks the impact it should. Their doomed love affair is not satisfactorily developed enough for up-to-task actors James McAvoy (2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
") and Keira Knightley (2007's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
") to properly convey the extent of their soulful relationship, and it doesn't help that the chemistry between them never rises above lukewarm. Knightley especially receives the short end of the stick, vanishing for such long stretches of time (particularly in the second half, set primarily in France during World War II) that it is impossible to understand what Cecilia is going through by being separated from the love of her life. All we as the audience have to go on is what is told to us, and that does not nearly make the impression of physically being allowed to see Cecilia's conflict play out.
The depiction of a romance that might have withstood the test of time were it not for the unfortunate circumstances that tore them apart, "Atonement" ironically does not dedicate enough screen time to Cecilia and Robbie in the first act for the second and third sections to pay off. By picking and choosing only random, self-contained glimpses of these two, the viewer senses that the whole of the story isn't being told. This more than anything irrevocably puts us at a frustrating distance from the characters, and the appropriately forlorn conclusion, once again forcing us to reassess all that we have just watched from a different light, is not quite enough to make up for it.