Atonement (Wright, 2007)

It’s not hard to pinpoint the key deficiency in Joe Wright’s Atonement, the critically acclaimed film adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel. It has all the elements one would expect from a high brow English tragedy – strong acting, picturesque cinematography, and an intelligent use of romantic music cues and sounds. But the script by Christopher Hampton rambles and repeats so many times the images, acting, and sound design begin to feel just as false as the words, creating towers of unearned sentiment weighing heavily without support. Atonement tells the story of poor gardener Robby (James McAvoy in a great role) and rich hottie Cecilia (Kiera Knightly) who begin a momentary romance only to be separated by a false criminal accusation issued from little sister Briony, set up via a number of convoluted moments of childish interpretation. This unrequited love haunts both Robby as he decides to join the British army instead of jail and Cecilia as she becomes a nurse during WWII. The story comes full circle when older Briony, now able to comprehend the scope of her malpractice, tries to mend the fences one key stroke at a time (she’s a writer, hence the creative imagination). Atonement flashes back multiple times, attempting to put some life into the material, and Wright’s direction of the early scenes are especially superb. But as the miscommunications and jealousies forge insurmountable odds for Robby and Cecilia’s romance, the heartbreaking writing appears on the wall. This film consumes itself with the obvious suffering of all involved, milking this genre trait dry by the final sentimental moment on a romantic English beach. It seems Hampton and Wright fell into the old trap of telling through words more than showing through visuals. Atonement beautifully captures the ache of lovers defeated by the injustices of false pretenses, but never develops a context for all the pain and anguish to mean something more than meager melodrama. The desperate tears, the screeching screams, and the outstretched hands seem altogether basic.

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One thought on “Atonement (Wright, 2007)

  1. ‘It seems Hampton and Wright fell into the old trap of telling through words more than showing through visuals’ – I think the first half of the film is told almost entirely through visuals. In fact, the whole point is that we are seeing things through Briony’s eyes. The second half is all about what isn’t seen, purely about her words. The scene on the beach surely isn’t ‘too wordy’, but it is just words, on the meta level of her story. Later we get a retelling of a scene between McAvoy and Knightley – it’s just words, but, in such a situation, that is all they have. Additional details about their situation are conveyed, as is the only way they could – through words, through letters. Thus, there is a clear dichotomy at play and a clear duality of motifs between vision and the written word (indeed, the initial conundrum was spawned both by what she sees, in the events at the fountain, and in what she reads, in the letter that is delivered). There is a scene in the second half of the film where Briony sits with a Frenchman, a man who is comforted only by words. Then there is that great, absurdly melodramatic scene where Briony is confronted by the pair of lovers after the war has ended, and they scream at her as if she made the mistake as a 24 or 84 year old woman out of nothing but spite and malice as opposed to naivety and immaturity. That scene is amazing to me because it is a pure expression of penance, of self loathing, of the great weight she bears which cannot be lifted because the only ones she feels that can lift it are dead. She lets it weigh on her more than any person ever should, and that is expressed in the excessive weight that the two lovers place on it, which is really her own voice. Her writing is the only way she can find penance, comfort; the words give her comfort as to the Frenchman before her, although for her it seems there is no amount that will completely sooth her. And to that end – there are never enough words, the film can never convey enough through words, but I still feel like it does an excellent job of focusing on the interplay between the visual and the written in the first half and the importance of language in the second, coupled with those other themes that seep out of the metafictional conceit. Thus, I feel that the words of the film do both support the film’s themes and provide the very content of what the theme espouses – the importance of language, of words. This sequence of thoughts was brought to you by: too many words. I apologize for being far too wordy, but, uhh, it’s important, supposedly. It gives me comfort! There, tied that in with the film. Now imagine that I am Kiera Knightley and we’ll have the pleasant visual accompaniment.

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