Historical, romantic drama

  • Written by Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Ian McEwan
  • Directed by Joe Wright

Sweeping historical epics sweep by a lot faster, these days. According to the Internet Movie Database, the very British World War II love story Atonement runs only 130 minutes. It felt like only about 120 to me. And yes, that’s a compliment.

The story, based on a novel by Ian McEwan, starts in a wealthy family estate in the mid-1930’s. Eldest daughter Cecilia (Keira Knightley) secretly loves the Oxford-bound groundkeeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy). But her 13-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Rona) see something she shouldn’t have, fails to understand it, resulting in the young man’s arrest. Years later, Robbie ends up at Dunkirk, Cecilia is completely estranged from her family, and the 18-year-old Briony (now played by Romola Garai) carries the guilt of ruining two people’s lives.

As the young lovers, Knightley and McAvoy are as wonderful as you’d expect from their previous work. Ronan and Garai have their hands full playing the same character at different ages, and if neither of them can match Knightley’s and McAvoy’s charisma, they bring us into the soul of a confused girl and a tortured young lady.

Director Joe Wright and his team provide the sort of spectacle we’d expect in such a story–the dazzle of the estate, spontaneous sex, the difficult conditions of war-torn London, the trapped army at Dunkirk, and the gruesome injuries meant to remind us that war is hell.

Also the lush, sweeping musical score that I couldn’t help wishing would shut up. If something dramatic was happening, if something not-all-that-dramatic was happening, and pretty much when people weren’t talking, up would come the music, too lush, too sweeping, too loud, and too insistent on telling us how we should feel too much of the time. It’s the right kind of score for this type of picture (although some big band would have set the period nicely), but half as much of it, at half the volume, would have worked better.

Like so many modern films, Atonement plays with time, cutting back and forth so that we can see results before we see the cause and watch events from two different vantage points. The ending in particular fiddles with time and perception in a most unusual way. Although many recent films use this playing-with-time stuff (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, for instance), it was strange and unusual in this particular type of picture. And yes, that’s a compliment.