Keira Knightley and James McAvoy star in Atonement. (Alex Bailey/Focus Films)
British writer Ian McEwan is the master of the epic miniature. His work telescopes in and out of days, hours, even moments that, often disastrously, define an entire life. In his WWII-era novel Atonement, it’s an impulsive, spiteful lie told by a child that sets into motion a tragedy that will span six decades.
Director Joe Wright’s lush and cocky adaptation is much more faithful to its source than his buoyant re-interpretation of Pride & Prejudice in 2005. While that film was mud-on-the-dress-hem earthy, Atonement revels in the artificial, aping the look, tone and jaw-clenched diction of the films of the 1930s. One sultry, summer day, the aristocratic Cecilia (Keira Knightley, with the marcelled hair and bony elegance of a Noel Coward heroine) consummates her long-sublimated attraction to Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son turned Cambridge grad. Their upstairs-downstairs romance is spied upon and misinterpreted by Cecilia’s little sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer with a hyperactive imagination. Too young to entirely understand her motivations or their consequences, Briony punishes Robbie by accusing him of a crime he didn’t commit, landing him in prison.
From there, the story leaps ahead to the war. Robbie has been paroled to fight in France and, out of loyalty to him, Cecilia has rejected her family and its wealth and is working as a nurse. Briony is training to nurse, too, as a kind of penance, and she spends her nights clandestinely writing and rewriting the story of her betrayal of Robbie and Cecilia. The recurring sound of typewriter keys throughout the film suggests that the task is Sisyphean. No amount of work can fix what she has broken.
Wright’s confident direction ingeniously handles the novel’s shifts in time and perspective, only stumbling near the end with some moments that ring more literary than real. The war scenes in the second half, particularly an astonishing steadicam shot that sweeps over the chaos and carnage of the evacuation at Dunkirk, serve as a visceral counterpoint to the earlier, domestic tragedy. Although this is Briony’s story, Romola Garai, who plays her as an adult, fades into the background every time Knightley’s smoldering Cecilia and McAvoy’s haunted Robbie appear onscreen. But perhaps that’s intentional. While Briony observes from behind a typewriter, Cecilia and Robbie opt for the blood and muck and passion of real life.
Atonement screens at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12.
Rachel Giese writes about arts for CBCNews.ca.
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