[Note: I finally caught Atonement at a special screening. I’m only a few months late…]
Atonement is so pleasingly old-fashioned that one might believe that, save for a few details, it was up for Best Picture of 1946. One can safely assume that the filmmakers were aiming for the kind of “greatness” (that is to say, the rousing pomp that used to tickle audiences) that romances of this stripe have attained in the past. In those terms, Atonement has achieved it. Its psychology is no more advanced than that of a Gone with the Wind (1939) or Doctor Zhivago (1965) or Titanic (1997), but it’s a grand tear-jerker—a high-class chick-flick.
The early scenes, at a stately English manor, are presented as if Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, which covered similar terrain, was decades away. There’s the pristinely beautiful starlet-lover, Cecelia (Keira Knightley); her Victorian dowager mother; her unappealing, rich fiancé; his foppish, absurdly élitist industrialist-friend; the starlet’s true love, Robbie (James McAvoy), a gentle soul of lesser means who is about to enroll in medical school and prove he’s a credit to his class; and the starlet’s little sister, Briony (the aery blonde Saoirse Ronan), whose name smells of salt and who pines for Robbie, but is too young and awkward to nab him. All in the span of a day, Robbie accidentally sends Cecelia a letter expounding on his longing for her “cunt” (a word that was tastefully omitted from Rhett Butler’s and Yuri Zhivago’s and Jack Dawson’s vocabulary), which Briony reads and is disgusted by. Jealous Briony catches Robbie and Cecelia finally consummating their love in the library; so later, when Briony sees a man (who we do not see) raping her pre-teen cousin in the woods, she blames the crime on Robbie. He’s sent to prison, but, with the outbreak of World War II, opts to become a soldier instead.
Like Wind or Zhivago or Titanic, the historical calamity here is but a means of separating our two star-crossed lovers. And, as with those three films, the historical disaster is reproduced like a technician’s dream: One impressive dolly shot swivels around a war-torn city for minutes. But, even when the camera pulls back to reveal slaughtered schoolgirls stumbled upon by Robbie (meant to evoke, I’m certain, the famous crane shot revealing the wounded Confederates in Wind), one doesn’t feel too much anti-war fury: Robbie’s perambulations as a soldier never show him any combat, only monumental weariness and heart-squishing yearning for Cecelia.
Despite its gaudiness, though, the movie is not without feeling; there’s a very sensitive scene at a war hospital in which Briony (now a nurse) speaks to a dying French soldier. He’s missing pieces of his brain, and believes he knows and loves her. A counterpoint to this scene, however, is the incredibly graphic display of battle wounds after a battalion is rushed to the hospital. Like the schoolgirls, this doesn’t show us the horrors of war; it shows us how nasty a makeup job these filmmakers can provide. Why they thought this effect desirable here, I don’t know.
The real innovation of Atonement, I suppose, is that the foci of the romance are not just Cecelia and her Robbie, but Briony the Bitch, as well. The title comes from her lifelong attempts at penance for slandering Robbie—a crime of passion. Sultry guilt is a prime subject for a romance novel, and it translates cleanly into this epic spectacle because the writers and the director, Joe Wright (a name not quite as epical as “Cecil B. DeMille”), seem earnest about featuring the pathos, but balance that earnestness with an ability to keep thrusting the plot forward (through sometimes-confusing flashbacks) in the same way that Robbie wishes to thrust Cecelia. Unfortunately, since they are such darling sweethearts, that thrust sometimes includes mantras like “Come back to me!” and “This story will resume!” But the cinematography (by Seamus McGarvey) is so classically grandiose that it feels natural for Pvt. Robbie to run after Cecelia’s truck as it drives away. And McAvoy and Romola Garai (the older Briony, and a good double for Ronan) give their roles an elegant, utterly British intensity. One moment, however, is irreparably campy—a purplish attempt at foreshadowing in which Briony sees an old woman waddle down the street with a cart during an important scene, and the viewer laughs his way right out of the film.