Atonement is a handsome movie, filled with striking visuals and attractive people. Director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice), working from screenwriter Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel, has created a movie that's less emotionally engaging than it is intellectually and aesthetically interesting, which would be fine if Atonement were not meant to be, among other things, a romantic tearjerker.
The story follows star-crossed lovers Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). She's a daughter of privilege, enjoying idle days on an idyllic estate during between-the-wars England. He's the gardener, and the son of a housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn). Robbie and Cecilia are not so much star-crossed, really, as they are double-crossed by Cecilia's 13 year old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer who, suffering a combination of puppy love, jealousy, sexual naivete, and a vindictive fictiveness, betrays Robbie, telling a lie that sends him to jail and sets off a family tragedy with ongoing repercussions.
Told in three parts, the story follows Briony's betrayal and its aftermath, for her and for Robbie and Cecilia. The first part of the story is the most engaging, owing in large part to an especially intense and self-assured performance by Ronan. Atonement succeeds in creating a tense drama that percolates the familiar British brew of class-consciousness, simmering sexuality, interpersonal misunderstanding, and villainy. This first part of the story is passionate and devastating in a way that the rest of the movie never quite recaptures. The story then follows a young adult Briony (Romola Garai), who becomes a wartime nurse, and Cecelia and Robbie, who are separated again when he goes off to fight the war. Although this middle section of the movie features several striking and memorable scenes (including an impressive five minute long tracking shot of the surreal scene at Dunkirk, during the historic evacuation there), it never quite clicks with the same energy or force as the movie's prologue. Partly it's that Knightley and McAvoy, although their characters pine for each other across the miles, never quite snap together as an onscreen couple, so their separation is less acutely felt than it is merely seen and understood to be tragic and poignant. At the same time, they are frequently in the middle of other tragic and poignant wartime incidents, and Atonement tries valiantly to create a sense of sweeping scale, of its characters being caught up in events far bigger than themselves, events which amplify the effects of Briony's fabrications, giving them a truly tragic dimension. All the heat and fire Atonement might generate are continually damped down though, in one way or another.
That emotional distance is interesting when the story's final and surprising revelation unfolds -- Briony is by then an old woman (played by Vanessa Redgrave with the same cropped hair and shapeless frock worn by the younger Briony) and a successful novelist. Atonement is, of course, the story of her attempt to redeem herself, and to atone for the sin she committed in her youth. And so, the meta aspect of Atonement, the intellectually interesting part of it, is the way Briony, a storyteller, goes about trying to make things right after her original storytelling sin, and how she does it not so much for the sake of Robbie and Cecilia, but for her own sake. What ought to be a shocking revelation, however, is not quite the gutwrenching surprise it might be, which is to say it is surprising without being gutwrenching, another instance in which the movie gets everything right except the feeling.
It's not for lack of trying. The music frequently swells to signify the emotional intensity that is lacking elsewhere in Atonement. Dario Marianelli's musical score is punctuated with the insistent percussive sound of a click-clacking typewriter. The typewriter-as-percussive-instrument is a clever conceit that is interesting at first but quickly becomes overbearing and overly literal-minded. Wright manages to capture a look and sense of place, even a sense of romantic possibility, in a way that often suggests other movies, particularly romances from the World War II era, which Atonement mimics right down to the clipped, rapid speech of its characters. The pitfall with that kind of homage is that it begins to look and feel like no more than homage, a genre exercise that leaves its characters, and its audience, feeling cold. Atonement is a period movie that evokes the movies of the period; it's a literary adaptation that remains faithful to its source; it is high-minded and literal-minded to a fault. In all that effort to be true to some other idea or ideal, Atonement never quite coalesces into something unique or outstanding or beautiful or moving in its own right.