Joe Wright's "Atonement" is a sophisticated, gorgeous screen tragedy that's propelled by the destructive choices in life. Here, the bad decisions don't wash away overnight, they snowball over the course of a lifetime, slowly but surely destroying anything in their path.
It's England on the brink of WWII, and on an isolated estate young Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is nursing a crush on the maid's son, Robbie (James McAvoy). A literate, inventive pre-teen, Briony is flattened when she discovers Robbie is attracted to her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), a stately woman who returns the affection tenfold. With her heart broken, Briony bears false witness against Robbie during an unusual sexual situation, punishing the young man to prison and soon the front lines of the war. Years later, Briony, now a nurse (played by Romola Garai), finds the burden of guilt overwhelming and seeks out the separated lovers to make amends.
In 2005's "Pride and Prejudice," director Wright injected an exhilarating verve back into the dead zone of British costume dramas. It was a divine affair, marked by a fascination with nature and Wright's ability to challenge the material past its corset-tight demands. "Atonement" is an even stronger picture, with Wright demonstrating the confidence of a seasoned pro, shuffling through this twisted tale of deception and anguish with tip-top timing and shattering displays of directorial ingenuity.
Where "Pride" was a Vaseline-smeared romantic fable, "Atonement" is a dirge for love. Through the application of constantly rotating POVs and disorientating time-jumps, Wright captures the story from different angles, presenting the viewer the blossoming romance between Robbie and Cecelia; at the same time, focusing on the pursed-lip, prepubescent rage of Briony (she's Patty McCormack with a cutthroat accent) as she fails to contain herself when the opportunity for Robbie's banishment arrives. There's little in the way of tenderness here; "Atonement" is directed more toward a procedural structure, detonating a dramatic bomb and counting all the casualties.
Using Kubrickian camera constructs, "Atonement" is a far more stunningly crafted film than "Pride." It's certainly chillier as well, playing with ideas of icy visual symmetry, nearly reaching exhilarating rock opera proportions. Since the story is simple in terms of character arcs, Wright spends enormous amounts of time dreaming up a rich visual scheme for the film, eventually stumbling into bravura one-take experimentations. One standout captures the massive evacuation of Dunkirk in a five-minute single shot that snipers the film's energy, but nonetheless remains a searing portrait of drunken war-time insanity, sharply echoing the mental deterioration of Robbie as his hopes for safe passage from combat are quickly ripped from his hands through a crushing display of disarray and madness.
Once the elder Briony steps back into the picture, "Atonement" slides comfortably into dreamy passages, addressing her guilt and desire to mend bridges with Cecilia and Robbie. This, of course, is punctuated with a sucker punch of a conclusion that rattles the senses. It's the dollop of heartache on top of a luxurious cinematic cake, furthering Wright's position as one of the more exciting young filmmakers out there today.
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