Atonement is a case study in exactly how I like to see a movie unfold. It takes its time laying out the narrative threads, lets us get to know the characters, establishes and explores the setting, and begins subtly introducing the themes that will resonate by the third act — all with an inertia that relentlessly draws you in. It executes it like — imagine that — a book would: Atonement is based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name. Here's one of those instances where the movie is better than the text.
Atonement's first act takes place all in one day, opening at the Tallis estate in mid-1930s England. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a very deliberate and self-assured 13-year-old girl who has just written her first play, to be staged for her family that evening. When she witnesses a series of very complex, adult incidents between her sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and the housekeeper's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), Briony's creative mind is set to work, imposing a narrative that is, in its simplicity, far from the truth.
Complicating matters are class and familial tensions: The Tallis paterfamilias put lower-class Robbie through grammar school and Cambridge, where fellow-student Cecilia socially ignored him. The first act leads up to the seminal event in all of the characters lives, when Robbie is accused of a terrible crime and is hauled off by the police.
Director Joe Wright (2005's Pride & Prejudice) constructs this first section architecturally. He builds from the ground up and reinforces the structure with switchbacks in plot so that we can see events from multiple points of view. His style is both formal and free-flowing. It's the type of work that gets award-season attention.
If the first act is the event, the second act is the aftermath, where no one can escape what happened. We are transported four years into the future, where we're immersed in World War II drama — militarily, as Germany invades France, and on the home front, as the war effort kicks into high gear. The centerpiece sequence is a glorious four-and-a-half-minute, one-take shot through the panoramic disarray of the Dunkirk evacuation. It would be the best such shot in years if Children of Men didn't exist. Wright will have to settle for second-best of the year.
I'd normally only mention the score if I was hurting for something to say, but Dario Marianelli's composition in Atonement is something else. The typewriter is a central motif in the film, and Marianelli incorporates typewriter strikes into his music, making them the sound of the movie's heartbeat. I don't think I've been so aware of a score — in a positive way — since Gustavo Santaolalla's Brokeback Mountain.
In the book, the ending was the most effective part. Curiously, the film worked on me in the opposite manner: It's everything leading up to the conclusion that had me rapt. Not bad for a plot that I already knew top to bottom. Flawlessly, elegantly executed, Atonement is a movie that knows how to treat a fella right.
Opening Friday, December 14th
Studio on the Square