This year’s sweeping, epic romance ATONEMENT, from director Joe Wright (PRIDE & PREJUDICE), is about as Oscar-friendly as movies can get. Pretty much every single department of the filmmaking process is firing on all cylinders for a film of this sort; similar to tragic war-time romances like COLD MOUNTAIN and THE ENGLISH PATIENT, ATONEMENT delivers cinematic grandeur and intimacy on a large scale. Based on Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel, the screenwriter Christopher Hampton (DANGEROUS LIASONS, THE QUIET AMERICAN) has expertly fashioned a tale of lust, jealousy, and deception while never losing sight of the story’s relatively tight trajectory. It’s a layered tale that is engrossing on both a visual and narrative level, highlighted by two terrific central performances by James McAvoy and Keira Knightley.
ATONEMENT centers on three main characters; Robbie (McAvoy), Cecilia (Knightley), and Cecilia’s sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan). The stage is the London countryside, circa 1935; the war machine is almost ready to begin cranking its wheels. Robbie, the good looking, educated son of the family's housekeeper has harbored feelings for Cecilia for years and vice versa; their longing looks for one another say it all. Sparks fly and the two young lovers engage in a library room tryst that Briony walks in on, confusing it for something else. Meanwhile, the precocious Briony, an aspiring playwright, has a crush on Robbie as well; the jealousy that she holds of her sister compels her to accuse Robbie of a crime he did not commit. And even though that Cecilia and Robbie declare their love for each other, Robbie is arrested. Cue WWII, and Robbie and Cecilia are separated even further; he’s a soldier and she’s a nurse. Briony has grown up but continues to seek forgiveness for her reckless behavior years before. Everyone’s lives intersect but will happiness find Robbie and Cecilia? And will Cecilia ever be able to forgive her sister? By the time the painful ending comes and the truth is revealed (I dare not spoil the particulars), you’ll be riveted by the tension.
The sordid nature of some of the plot elements in ATONEMENT was surprisingly soapy in the fine details; it’s a sexy story with sexy actors and there is palpable chemistry between McAvoy and Knightley. Similar to the long-gestating romance at the center of the Civil War saga COLD MOUNTAIN, ATONEMENT is about the enduring power of love; no matter what obstacles the characters face, they only care about being reunited. Hampton’s screenplay is tasteful and tactful and his dialogue crackles with period-flavor and authenticity. McAvoy, who registered strongly in last year’s THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, is impressive as Robbie. He's manly enough to suggest that he could become a regular leading man in Hollywood films, but there's an interesting feminine quality he holds at the same time. He’s a little short to be the proto-typical “leading man” I think. He's an emotional actor, and his crystal clear blue eyes pierce the screen with a quiet dignity. And Knightley, now a pro at these types of costume dramas, aces every scene she appears in, and could teach an acting class about stately, British diction; her voice is so sharp it could cut glass. Impossibly skinny yet beautiful to look at all the same, Knightley has progressed as an actress from film to film; she's one of my favorites. But the real find is Ronan; considering that Briony is a thoroughly detestable character, her skill as an actress in the small details allows the audience to possibly grasp why she does what she does. Ronan landed the role in Peter Jackson’s upcoming adaptation of THE LOVELY BONES based largely upon her work in this film.
The movie works as well as it does because director Wright, who demonstrated a steady, un-showy professionalism in his previous collaboration with Knightley, PRIDE & PREJUDICE, aims high with his ambitions and delivers a powerfully observed tale of love and redemption. However, the entire film comes to a halt about halfway through when Wright, and his amazing cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (WORLD TRADE CENTER), stage a six minute tracking shot of Robbie walking along the beach at Dunkirk that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. This bravura sequence, highlighted by any number of logistically complicated camera moves and background action, is lyrical without being pretentious, challenging yet amazingly assured. It’s up there with some of the greatest single takes in cinema history, earning its rightful place next to the Copacabana shot in GOODFELLAS, the opening shot of Brian De Palma’s SNAKE EYES, the opening sequence of Orson Wells’ TOUCH OF EVIL, and any of the single take sequences in last year’s masterwork CHILDREN OF MEN. I have had the opportunity to watch this sequence in ATONEMENT a few times, and each time I see it, the more impressive it becomes.
ATONEMENT is a very well made film. It’s forcefully acted, accomplished in every department of the filmmaking process, and thematically rich. My only complaint is that there wasn’t a big battle sequence, but that’s not what this film is about, so I can’t hold the filmmakers at fault for not figuring out a way to shoehorn in something that doesn’t belong. It was my preconceived notion of the genre that led me to believe that there’d be some bloody battlefield action. And in the end, the film doesn’t need it; I was waiting for it to happen because I expected it to come. And while I loved watching ATONEMENT, it won’t end up in my top 10; this year has been just too damn good. However, I will not be surprised in the slightest if ATONEMENT is nominated for multiple Academy Awards; it’s the kind of film that the Academy loves. That said, mark it down as yet another excellent piece of filmmaking for 2007.