Rebirth of Reason

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Atonement (2007)

Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightly, Saoirse Ronan
Director: Joe Wright
AtonementLush cinematography and fine acting talent wasted on a puffball of a story -- and one that ultimately doesn't even make sense.


England, 1935. Landed gentry. Elder daughter: Keira Knightly. Younger: Saoirse Ronan. The lower class workhand: James McAvoy.

Thirteen year old Saoirse Ronan is a budding writer with a vivid imagination. She has an adolescent crush on James McAvoy (the son of a longtime servant of the manor, with dreams of a medical career); and McAvoy has the hots for Keira (it's reciprocal, but she needs a little "shove" to push her out of her inbred class snobbery).

Ronan (whose name is "Briony" in the story) sees four "adult" situations, almost all in a row, which leads her little imagination (and inherent lack of ethics) to conclude that poor McAvoy is a pervert and a sex maniac. So despite her knowing the contrary to be true, she perjures herself to the law and accuses McAvoy of rape (not of herself, but of a young cousin). The cousin, of course, was not raped by McAvoy but rather by a business magnate (of course) who gets away with it, and even ends up marrying the lass later in the picture.

McAvoy, so ambitious and so much in love with Knightly, goes to prison...but does not serve the full sentence because he volunteers for the army (we are now four years later when WWII has formally been begun).

The title, "Atonement," has to do with the growing up of Briony, and her simultaneous unwillingness/inability to atone for her ruining the lives of two people (Knightly's and McAvoy's) and her deep desire to atone. She tries to atone symbolically, for example, by becoming a nurse and helping the wounded. We see scenes in which she attempts to reconcile things with Keira and McAvoy, but to no avail.

At the end of the movie, we see Briony-the-old-woman-and-established-novelist (now played by Vanessa Redgrave). She's being interviewed on television about her latest novel, "Atonement," in which she has written all about her perjury as a child. Then she lets loose with this bombshell: all of the scenes in her novel -- and therefore the movie that the audience has patiently been watching -- in which she has attempted to reconcile things with Knightly and McAvoy were fabricated by her...in fact (she claims), she never had the chance to reconcile anything with her sister since she died during an air raid; and McAvoy never had the chance to return to Knightly, even on leave (as we witnessed several times in the movie), because he died of a war wound in France. Briony admits that she lied about these events because she felt she "owed" it both to her characters (whom she had mortally hurt in real life) and to her readers (who would be disatisfied with anything else).

So here's what I'd like to know: if it's true that Briony lied about events "B", "E", and "G", why should we accept her word regarding events "A", "C", "D", and "F"? Perhaps she never witnessed any sex crime as a child; perhaps she never had an adolescent crush on McAvoy; perhaps there never was anything between McAvoy and Knightly. Who knows?

This is as compelling as thinking about the sentence, "Everything I say is untrue," and watching as it flip-flops between being true and being false. It's fun for about five seconds.

In addition to these story-logic problems, the editing often chopped up chronological time for no good reason. It's one thing when this is done in a film like "Rashomon" or even the early Kubrick thriller "The Killing"; for here, each flashback reveals a different perspective, or provides some new information, so the discontinuity has a purpose. When a filmmaker cuts in and out of the story's "present-tense NOW" for no reason except that it's arty, you can be sure that the director and the editor were not confident in the strength of the storyline to stand on its own.

Finally, there were long, long, LONG single shots and two-shots, in which the lovers stare longlingly ("OK, Keira...James...let's do a take 12 on that. This time, stare at each other 'lovingly' instead of 'longingly'. Action!"), and then lovingly, into each other's eyes.

Been there done that. Could we have some solid storytelling, please?

As I grudgingly admitted above, there's some smart acting and some effective cinematogaphy (almost but not quite worthy of some of David Lean's films), all wasted on a storyline twisted by pretzel-logic.

I truly cannot understand the reason this movie has been getting raves.
Added by Claude Shannon
on 2/20/2008, 3:44am

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