Every holiday season, along with the forced sentiment, Bill O’Reilly apoplexy, and standard, though crippling, depression, we are treated to at least one cinematic “must-see”; the sort of prestige picture that sends the average critic stumbling to his thesaurus in search of gushing adjectives that all but close the book on the Oscar race. The time and setting of such a movie can vary, of course, as can the talent involved, but to a film, we are assured that here, in the dark, we will witness a true epic; a masterpiece of sweeping grandeur and lush, aching beauty that comes but once in a generation. Even the trailer seems to write itself: there will be shots of passionate embrace, tear-stained faces longing for lost loves, at least one glimpse of soldiers-in-arms, and, at last, a walk along the ocean that speaks to simpler times, that is, before our doomed heroes were pulled apart by forces they couldn’t possibly understand. Music will soar, sunlight will yield to horror-filled darkness, and a familiar voiceover will assure us that a most beloved novel is being brought to the screen in a manner never before considered. And here it is December, and the annual promise is once again being fulfilled, this time by Joe Wright’s Atonement, based on the much-praised book by Ian McEwan, and starring such notables as James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, and yes, even the revered Vanessa Redgrave. It is a movie that begs to be lavished with awards and unqualified praise, as it indeed was as early as August, when no one had yet seen the bloody thing. An actual screening is not even warranted, needless to say, for in this movie, the people have found their champion; the film they are supposed to love for no reason save the self-important impetus to do so.
I have little doubt that McEwan’s prose was its own reward, and that even he could bring depth and shading to these characters, but as presented by Mr. Wright and his crew, they are a colossal bore; the sort of people I would not only cross the street to avoid, but also shut my mind to the possibility of even existing at all. There is Cecilia (Knightley), a spoiled, obscenely wealthy nitwit who not only has the chest of a nine-year-old boy, but a mind no more complex than the lawn surrounding her isolated compound. At what point we are meant to identify with her is beyond any sound judgment, and as performed, she is empty, shallow, and bordering on caricature. Do you mean to say that she is a rich bitch who recoils in the presence of the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (McAvoy), but in fact harbors a secret lust for that very man? You don’t say? As shocking as such a turn might be, it is but the instigator of future tragedy, which is just as unforeseen to all those who checked out of 20th century cinema. After all, hadn’t all film and literature up to this point studiously avoided a clash of cultures, whereby rich and poor mingled only in the shadows? And what’s this, a snooty family living in apathetic luxury on the brink of war, with idle chatter about Hitler (oh, what foresight in 1935!) and even a stray bomber in the skies above to symbolize the madness to come? Mere touches, I’m afraid, and obligatory ones at that, for what else does such a tale need but standard points of impending doom? While no one had the nerve to stand up at dinner, clank a glass or two, and praise Neville Chamberlain’s “cautious wisdom” or preservation of “peace in our time,” such exclusions only served to highlight that as ridiculous as this tripe was, it could have been much worse.
The angle here, though, is that the whole film — after a key event, of course — does not actually exist, and is but a reinvention of the past by the homely fabulist Briony (played, in turn, by Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and the veteran Redgrave), a young girl who misconstrued a fountain-side flirtation between Cecilia and Robbie as a cold act of violence, among other faulty interpretations of key events. That a child’s lies could ruin lives is an interesting premise, I suppose, but it seems more than a trifle that we should be at least partly concerned about the lives in question. We know nothing of Briony except that she is a budding writer seemingly lost in the recesses of her imagination, and one who just might be punishing her sister for being more attractive and outgoing. But if spite is her motivation, and pure jealousy the weapon of her choosing, it’s not as interesting that she later writes the novel she does (the “atonement” of the title), for why not attempt to justify her crimes through fiction? Instead, Briony admits to bearing false witness, thereby sending Robbie to prison for a crime he most assuredly did not commit. And with this act, she also separated the lovebirds forever, as Cecilia died in a bombing raid in 1940, while Robbie perished at Dunkirk that same year. Her novel, however, brings them together again, and in this way, an alternate reality can come to substitute for a past that took a different turn. This new course is recalled by Redgrave (in a televised interview decades after the fact), though with such suddenness that the events under discussion are inevitably kept at arm’s length. From WWII to the present day in a single moment? What of the intervening decades? We knew it was coming, but it seems forced just the same. Rushed, at the very least.
So while McEwan’s book might have considered the role of the author, the capacity to relive the past, and our obligations to those we have wounded along the way, the movie is a flat, emotionless void in opposition to each and every idea it might accidentally encounter (even resorting to heavy-handed typewriter sounds on the soundtrack to remind us that we should not trust what we see). Without the flow of the written word, this is a trite, humbug of a story; one that includes a wicked tracking shot through the chaos of Dunkirk for no other reason than to bring a shot of life to the proceedings. This is proven when, after the film’s conclusion, I could recall little else but that justly praised piece of camerawork. As such, the movie would have been better off without it, for why highlight an abundance of weakness with but a single moment of strength? That, and as stylish as it was, it served no real end or thematic purpose. It was, to Wright’s subsequent admission, just a case of “showing off.” Needless to say, such tricks are never necessary when the screenplay holds additional delights. In addition, the performances, while efficient and stiff-upper-lipped in equal measure, are far from living up to the praise bestowed upon them by a gullible gallery of critics. Few register to any degree, and even when they do, ever-so-slightly, the actors are onscreen for such a brief duration that award considerations would be laughable were they not so damned likely.
McAvoy cuts a nice figure in a tuxedo, and Knightley has a face for close-ups, but can you remember a single exchange? Even with a great degree of concentration, I can’t recall a single memorable line or expression, surely a drawback for any picture that seeks immortality and repeat viewings. All I saw were two ciphers making eyes at each other, a bratty kid lying to police, a conscience-stricken nurse at war, and a soldier pining for the woman he loves, even though he’s actually dead and she, while alive, lacked all qualities necessary for adult conversation. Love stories, even if part of a twist involving historical revisionism, need to pull us apart at the seams; force us to our knees in admiration, desire, or passionate longing. What we see here isn’t love, but two boring saps who might as well have been married for 45 years for all the fireworks they generate. If the romance isn’t the point, but rather an author’s trick to give us what we want in lieu of reality, it still doesn’t justify acting as if a child’s storytelling interrupted anything of note. At certain moments during the film, I paused to consider that what I was seeing was in fact a satire; a bitter indictment of our collective need to have a happy ending at all cost, logic be damned. And hell, maybe it was, but I freely admit that such a conclusion is little more than an injection of good old fashioned wish fulfillment. I genuinely believe that the film wants to be taken at face value, and that we should feel a sense of loss in the face of what could have been, but never was. But if this guilt-ridden twat is going to lord over lives snuffed out before their time, perhaps she could do more than see to their survival. As it stands, I see a sin compounded, though hardly forgiven.