Movie News & Reviews

Mood, not characters, carry "Atonement"

2007 was a good year for movies.

How good was it? It was so good that good movies from 2007 are stillbeing released in 2008. Evidently it was a time-defyingly,laws-of-physics-breakingly good year, that's how good it was.

Yes indeed, last year was so great it either tore a hole in thespace-time continuum, propelling last year's entertainment forward tonow, the future, or else the theater/studio system releases moviesaccording to a process so inscrutable and byzantine that certainmovies, even big Hollywood movies that make tens of millions ofdollars, are set free in the big cities weeks, sometimes more than amonth ahead -- if they're expanded here at all -- of backwards, barbarousregions of the country like the Columbia Basin, a one-horse,wide-spot-in-the-road "town" home to a mere 200,000-odd people.

Not that you could blame the studios (assuming you could buy into sucha ludicrous theory as this "staggered release" idea); 37 people diedin Kennewick back in '94 when they panicked and stampeded away fromthe Metro 4 during what appeared to be a man-eating dinosaur invasion,and we did burn that projectionist at the stake as recently as2003 -- though in our defense, he was stealing our souls.

All that notwithstanding, I think it's pretty clear which theory ismore likely. But if irreparable damage to space-time means we stillget to look forward to what some people think was 2007's best movie ofall, There Will Be Blood or enjoyably solid films like Atonement , then I say take that, space-time.

After an argument with Keira Knightley, a long-time friend and socialsuperior (in pre-War England, these fine distinctions are a littlemurky, at least to my modern American eyes), James McAvoy writes up anapology letter and sends it to her via Saoirse Ronan, Knightley's13-year-old sister. He wrote a number of letters, trying to get itperfect, and realizes too late he's inadvertently sent not just thewrong one, but a horrifically bad one: a foul-mouthed confession oflove he wrote to blow off steam.

Disaster turns to bliss, however, when Knightley's shock opens hereyes to the fact she's in love with him, too; almost immediatelyafterward, Ronan, who read but didn't fully understand the letter,catches them mid-coitus. A 13-year-old boy might have reacted ratherdifferently, but she's a little freaked out.

Always a witness, never a participant, Ronan sees something else thatnight -- a visiting cousin being raped by a dark figure -- and, believingMcAvoy to be a sex-crazed, amoral menace, she convinces herself andthe police he's the rapist, cutting short his romance with Knightleybefore it's had a chance to begin.

Saying even this much about the plot verges on spoiler territory,since the bulk of Atonement is action, to use the term so generouslyyou could probably count it as a tax write-off, doesn't get rollinguntil it's about half over. It's deliberate, distanced, iceberg-likein that way dramas about English culture tend to be (at least a lot ofthe good ones), where there's not much to see above the surface, butbelow it, huge blocks of meaning are gliding right by, invisible toanyone who doesn't already know they're there.

Much of what it means that Knightley's rich and McAvoy is the son of aservant isn't played up or even explained, which might be part of whythe movie's far less dull than a carefully paced film aboutmisunderstandings could be. With none of the usual ham-fistedcomplaints about how much it blows to live in a society that tells youwho it's OK to love (I myself prefer laughably unattainableHollywood actresses -- look, Keira Knightley, I've mentioned your nameseveral times now, what more do you want??), we're left to fill in alot of the significance for ourselves.

This understatement works well for director Joe Wright through thefirst half, but once the results of Ronan's accusation play outthrough all their lives, the whole thing starts to drift. We don'tget to know Knightley or McAvoy that well before tragedy ruins them.When their situation and the breakdown of WWII thrusts them all intonightmare, it hits home, just not enough to knock you out.

The twist might come close. Rather than being a cheat or a flimsyattempt to blow your mind hard enough to make you forget how crummythe preceding 90 minutes were -- I'm looking at you, every horror movieof the last few years except The Descent -- it actually adds anotherlayer to everything that's happened. I wouldn't say it's excellent,but its haunted, introspective turn ties up a story that hadthreatened to unravel.

Even more than how hard it is to set things right after you've donewrong, Atonement is about how easy it is for a good thing to bedestroyed by malice, carelessness, or plain old bad luck. Itscharacters won't stick with you. The moods it captures -- regret,bleakness, fragility -- those have some staying power.

Grade: B+