“Atonement,” directed by Joe Wright and based on the Ian Mc-Ewan novel, is a sweeping, stylish, romantic, gorgeous melodrama, complete with spectacular scenery, period detail ranging from clacking typewriters to killer gowns, and an intricately plotted narrative. It is not, however, an emotionally powerful or a profound film.
Wright, whose directorial debut was 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice,” tackles more ambitious material this time, working from Christopher Hampton’s relatively faithful adaptation of McEwan’s novel. The decades-spanning drama takes us into the English countryside, war-ravaged France and a woman’s guilty conscience. Three members of an upper-class household, and an injurious lie, propel the story.
Young, rich and elegant Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Cambridge-educated housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) realize their attraction to each other, and several spicy incidents, including a seminaked pond plunge, occur. Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a budding writer with intense eyes, misinterprets what she witnesses. Confusion, imagination and malice drive Briony, who has a crush on Robbie, to falsely accuse him of a crime, with devastating results.
Enter the war, and Robbie is a dazed soldier in France and Cecilia and a repentant Briony (now played by Romola Garai) are nurses. Decades later, Briony is an elderly novelist (played by Vanessa Redgrave) who discusses the atonement she’s achieved through her writing.
If big beautiful dramas with romantic atmospheres, historical backdrops and photogenic stars delight you, this film should satisfy. Reminiscent of classic British films such as “Brief Encounter” (which Wright has cited as an influence), it looks splendid. A lengthy tracking shot, though show-offy, contains surreal splendor as it conveys the chaos of war via pockets of activity as soldiers at Dunkirk await evacuation. Hampton makes effective use of flashbacks.
And yet, as with Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice,” something’s dramatically deficient here. It appears as if Wright has concentrated so heavily on making a grand-scale production with golden-statue potential that he’s neglected to include what the film needs most: passion and soul.
This focus affects the performances. Knightley and McAvoy are operating in movie-star mode, and, while effective as such, they barely penetrate their characters’ glimmering surfaces.
The treatment of Briony fares better. Beyond the obvious attempt to establish a physical constant among the three actresses playing her, there is a psychological link evident in each woman’s eyes. Newcomer Ronan is indelible as a dangerous teen. Redgrave, superb as always, handles the plot twist majestically.
Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave
Written by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan
Directed byJoe Wright
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes