Halfway into his masterful 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, Joe Wright's camera enters the tight hallways and expansive rooms of a late-18th-century estate with several suites dedicated to smoking, gossiping and dancing. Fluidly drifting through encounters and gestures, the camera picks up the lilting remnants of conversations both benign and interesting. It's a miraculous and graceful scene that palpably exudes the feeling of being caught in a nest of gadflies.
The same shot can be found in Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's monumental Atonement, though the setting is now 1930s France. Three soldiers from London come upon a beach filled with soldiers waiting to return to their respective homelands. The camera glides past sergeants executing diseased horses, a choir of damaged infantry men and dozens of wounded battalions. Smoke bellows from scrap fires and a looming ferris wheel turns in the distance as the three English soldiers make their way into a bar.
In Prejudice, this movement picked up on the vastness of the social mores and attitudes that were so prevalent at the time and, indeed, were deciding factors not only in the Bennett family's life but in everyone's life in the early 19th century. But Atonement isn't about being together or social networking at all. Quite the contrary: McEwan's novel and by extension Wright's film are about the ways we are separated and how we scatter into memories both fictional and real; it's ultimately about one girl's obsession with the neatness and calculation of drama.
Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has just finished a play when we meet her, accompanied by the fluttering of rhythmic typewriter punches courtesy of Dario Marianelli's inventive score. She has decided to stage her play for her brother's homecoming with her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) in the lead. It's on a break from rehearsals that she witnesses her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) in a strange exchange with Robbie (James McAvoy), a gardener and the son of their cook (Brenda Blethyn). Unknown to anyone, an attraction between Robbie and Cecilia has been brewing for many years.
Briony, only 13, starts projecting her own story onto what she witnessed. Her imagination has even more to play with when she reads a dirty note from Robbie to Cecilia and, later, finds them together in Cecilia's room. The chance to launch her fiction into reality presents itself when the sexually awakened Briony finds Lola getting raped by a man whom she fingers as Robbie. For five years, Robbie will be remanded to the army, while Cecilia trys to build a life for the both of them back home. Meanwhile, Briony trains as a nurse as an act of penance for her flights of fantasy.
Often regarded as one of the best books of the last decade, McEwan's novel is largely about the spaces that language can create, and, in the sprawling structure of Cecilia and Briony's home, Wright finds that and gives the film an impressive sense of detail with help from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. Wright's concentration is at times stupendous, especially when studying the differences between actual action and Briony's perception. Notably, Ronan's performance strongly expresses a know-it-all mentality while quietly diagnosing the obsessions of a young writer. But as he moves outwards toward the landscapes of Robbie's regiment and the methodical day-to-days of Briony's nurse station, the director loses the hushed details and his hold on the central theme comes loose.
Wright's biggest problem comes in conveying the loneliness and isolation felt by the three characters. His images are full, rich, and colorful at almost every turn; even the image of Robbie finding a mass of executed schoolgirls has a sense of communal horror. Shot mainly in medium shots with few instances of her alone, Briony's wanting to atone doesn't come across as a struggle but rather as an act of marking time. Concluding Briony's struggle, the filmmaker returns to the fictionalizing and neatness of dreamt fiction but the transition from imagined drama to reality grows tedious. For both Briony and Wright, the act of setting a personal tone to an existing story comes with the incapability of knowing the damage one can inflict.
Seems like a good place for a nap.