The acclaim Joe Wright's Atonement has garnered prior to its release illustrates how Oscar hype impacts the review process. Released any other time of the year, the film may have been seen for what it is: a luxe adaptation of a modern literary classic. But it comes to us at the end of the calendar year, when publicists and pundits conspire to groom films, typically sight unseen, for the award-season horse races, so Atonement is accepted as a masterpiece by audiences almost without question. The film's gullible, largely histrionic plaudits speak of something so awesome, sensual, and intelligent you half expect to see the second coming of Gosford Park, when it's not even Howards End.
Ian McEwan's characters all seem to suffer from the same disorder of the mind, as if they "lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception"—a quote from the author's stunning Enduring Love, traduced by Roger Michell into a queer version of Fatal Attraction a few years back. Atonement's Briony, a precocious little fabulist whose naïvete ruins many lives, is like scientific journalist Joe Rose from Enduring Love and the grieving Vernon and Clive from Amsterdam—people who inhabit a world where logic is "the engine of feeling." These characters inherit the author's obsession with time and memory—an intellectual disease, for sure, but one that always feels vibrantly and affectingly diagnosed and suffered. They're all self-absorbed people, but Briony's temperament is partly justified by her youth, which makes Atonement especially poignant.
The 13-year-old Briony words indicate she is wise beyond her years, but she is still not versed in matters of sex. Wright understands this discrepancy between conduct and understanding, but he has dubious fun charting the succession of events that confuse Briony (Saoirse Ronan) into falsely accusing Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), son of the family maid, of raping her older cousin. She intuits something perverse in her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) diving into the fountain in front of the house while a nervous Robbie watches, then links this confounding moment to a naughty word she catches a glimpse of in the letter Robbie asks her to give to Cecilia, and later to Robbie straddling Cecilia in the library, and finally, to a mysterious man forcing himself on Lola (Juno Temple). The pulse quickens, but Wright politely dances around the moral tragedy of Briony's lie.
Wright, who earned specious comparisons to Altman with his overpraised Pride & Prejudice, overlooks the class divisions that haunt the nooks and crannies of McEwan's novel. The closest acknowledgement of such friction is Cecilia's line about how she and Robbie move "in different circles" and the admonishing look the girl directs at a servant for not knowing where to put a visitor's luggage. As such, audiences hardly sympathize with the way Briony's false accusation cuts to the core of Robbie's being, obliterating his chance at a prosperous future that once seemed possible after he and his mother (Brenda Blethyn) fell into the good graces of Briony and Cecilia's bourgeois family. Even during an excellent but ill-placed flashback late in the film, in which Briony pretends to drown, one is struck by how easily adults forget that, in spite of her sagacity, she is still a child, but Wright's impatient style insufficiently grapples with the way Briony's confusion and isolation in the wake of her great lie makes her a castaway from the world.
McEwan's uncanny expression of the intangible has posed a challenge to those who've brought his novels and short stories to the screen (it's why fans of the author consider his work "unfilmable"), and Wright resorts to obvious cinematic shorthand to communicate Atonement's metaphysical ideas. Wright is no Raúl Ruiz, and the only way he cares to evoke Robbie's sense of regret and lost time is by playing the scenes surrounding his arrest backward. And though the audience already knows the contents of the letter Robbie asks Briony to give to her sister, "the worst word in the world" flashes again on the screen when Briony takes a peek at the letter, the clickety-clank of a typewriter filling the soundtrack, influencing the rhythm of the editing—fuddy duddies will feel flustered—and reminding us that Briony is a girl who does a lot of writing. This is how Wright frequently hand-holds his audience, literalizing the novel's mysteries.
Altman overlapped dialogue to convey naturalness, but Wright's similar approach feels artificial, emphasizing his uncertainty as an artist, as in Briony writing on the family grounds and her voice inexplicably filling the soundtrack multiple times. Wright is also prone to unnaturally propping his actors across the frame, as in the scene where Briony and her party guests appear to stand on an invisible geometric grid as they await Robbie's return from a reconnaissance mission in the woods, and the overemphatic score by Dario Marianelli matches his anxiety. If Wright's tasteful symmetry were isolated entirely to the film's first half, Atonement might have been onto something about a culture's titanic shift from an ancient, almost holy way of living toward a new modern age, but even the film's post-war sequences are framed in the same fastidious style. The film is pretty but without spontaneity, not unlike a Calvin Klein fashion show—almost eager to be done with and for which Knightley always feels to be auditioning for, even when wet. It's as if Wright were simply buying time until his virtuostic Dunkirk sequence—a four-minute-plus long take that is a triumph of extras casting and production design but completely devoid of emotion.
"Basically, I just like showing off." That's how Wright explained the Dunkirk sequence to a festival audience. So does Emir Kusturica, but he's able to break the heart in addition to wowing the eyes, as in the phantasmagoric finale of Underground, in which the personal is fiercely connected to the political and the horrors of war feel as if they are the fallout of familial betrayal. Wright's war scenes are failures of imagination because the filmmaker doesn't suggest a significant connection between the old and new, or the chaos of battle and the horror of what Briony did to Robbie. Like much of the film, which isn't much of a love story, it's all a load of empty posturing.
When an older Briony is doing nurse duty during WWII, it's out of penance, which we know only because Cecilia, also a nurse, tells us as much, but also because Briony cleans bedpans and scrubs box springs while narrating an apologetic letter to her sister on the soundtrack. These clinical artistic associations are scarcely electric and are typical of the film's cold engine of feeling, and except for McAvoy and Vanessa Redgrave, whose eyes save the vainglorious prologue, the performances are never haunted, though Knightley's affectedness, it must be said, is consistent with Wright's exaggerated idea of upper-class stiffness. The film is such that characters look into the camera and walk through scenes in zombified approximations of suffering and atonement. There's even a scene where Briony says, "It's complicated," about the story she's writing that will one day be known as Atonement. But just because you tell the audience doesn't make it so.