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Not Stranger than Fiction
A love for stories alters lives
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
ATONEMENT: Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan. Cinematography, Seamus McGarvey. Music, Dario Marianelli. Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave. Focus Features, 2007. 130 min. R.
What does it mean to tell a story?
|Briony (Saoirse Ronan) and Robbie (James McAvoy) in Atonement
It’s a simple question, but it’s one that can rarely be asked alone. What kind of story? A true story? A fanciful tale? To whom is the story told? And what shall we make of the teller?
The key teller of stories in Atonement, which is based on the exceptional novel by Ian McEwan, is Briony Tallis (the icy-eyed Saoirse Ronan), a 13-year-old writer with a fiery imagination and a sizable amount of self-importance. On a hot summer afternoon and evening in England in 1935, Briony orbits around the people at her family estate, including her older sister, the willowy Cambridge graduate Cecilia (Keira Knightley); their housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy), who also went to Cambridge but has since returned to work in the Tallis’ garden; and assorted other family members, including Lola (Juno Temple), a redheaded cousin, and Lola’s terrible twin brothers. As the evening progresses, Briony witnesses things she should never have seen, let alone presumed to understand. Her version of the events that transpire sends Robbie to prison and alienates Briony from her elder sister. What Briony couldn’t or wouldn’t understand, Cecilia was sharply aware of: the change in the air between Cecilia and Robbie as buried feelings came to light.
Several years later, Cecilia and Robbie meet again, but on the eve of parting; he got out of prison by joining the army and is about to leave for France. Here the film shifts from the rooms and grounds of the Tallis home, with its sun-drenched lawns and dark libraries, to the messy battlefields of France and sterile hallways of the hospitals where Cecilia (and later Briony) works. But the scene works backwards, from dark to light. When Cecilia carefully sets her hand atop Robbie’s; when his other hand, stirring coffee, skips in its rhythm, all the feeling contained by the drawing rooms and fountains of the film’s first half seems to burst free, emanating from James McAvoy’s thin face, his head down, his eyes heavy. By the end of lunch, strings are swelling as he parts ways with Cecilia. Here, the lush music is appropriate for this interlude between dark times and darker, but later Dario Marianelli’s score fails the movie.
The somewhat older Briony is a girl unnerved, a woman growing increasingly aware of the effect she had on a handful of lives. Though Romola Garai (Amazing Grace) seems oddly cast as the 18-year-old nurse-in-training — where Ronan was elfin, Garai is solid, earthier, almost plain — her changed presence, uncertain and self-contained, too guilty, still, to say a word, is preparation for the emotional tumult yet to come.
Director Joe Wright (Sense and Sensibility) doesn’t get everything right in Atonement. The film is at times stuffy, a little stiff, and is dotted with moments that, though striking in prose, become overwrought on film. An astounding tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk is quite beautiful, but it distracts with its own technical grace rather than serving the narrative; a not-quite-revelatory moment is paired with a crashing organ chord, as if we’d never have guessed what the film is showing us. But Wright has an ace he saves until the very end: Vanessa Redgrave, who, as a much older Briony, takes us straight to the point of those questions about story, as well as others about guilt, regret and the value of truth, in a story or out. As there are multiple perspectives on the scenes Briony, all those years ago, saw so darkly, there are many takes on what it means when, in its final scenes, Atonement turns in on itself. It’s not a comfortable ending, but it’s magnificent in the power it gives to truth and to fiction, which the older Briony understands is a different kind of truth — even when it doesn’t tell what “really” happened.
Atonement is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.