As exquisitely tailored and neatly pressed as movies get, Atonement has already been named a prohibitive awards favorite after an impressive run christening several film festivals in Europe. While it might be too English for some on the surface, dig a little deeper and you find something much more rewarding.
And of course, digging deeper is exactly what director Joe Wright wants. His vision of the recent Pride and Prejudice was more clearly about the class struggle and a love that society would rather bury than acknowledge and less about the costume design and production values. Though it wasn't the best version of the story, at least it was different.
In Atonement, Wright returns to similar themes, setting a love that knows no bounds in a world where it's in a bind, but he spends a good deal of time letting the surface elements decay. So much of the effect of Atonement, and indeed, so much of the nonverbal communication by the characters, is to show how keeping up appearances often reveals the flaws in those appearances.
What's left behind is three characters trapped by each other in a desperate time. Robbie (James McAvoy from The Last King of Scotland) works for the Tallis family, tending their garden, doing the chores on their country estate. The eldest daughter, Cecilia (Pirates of the Caribbean's Keira Knightley), should desire someone equal to her station; that's the way things go for the English upper crust in the 1930s. Instead, she wants the poor servant boy. So, too, does Cecilia's 13-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan, in a crushing breakthrough performance). And there are plenty of appearances among them that can't be kept up.
Without divulging much more about the story, it is important to note that teenagers can be cruel, and Briony's savagery is unexpected in its severity and consequential to everything that follows it for all three people whose desires and actions would all be frowned upon in their own culture, if you didn't get the overwhelming sense that some of these things happen all the time in that world.
Sumptuously directed by Wright – and here, a real focus is the production design and costumes – Atonement feels very much like a classic novel unfolding in front of you. His tremendous cast is aided and occasionally guided by the uncanny music by Dario Marianelli, the tremendous cinematography and editing and those stitch-perfect costumes.
You can see why Atonement carries its end-of-the-year reputation just by looking at its surface. But dig a little deeper and you'll find something even greater.
Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan
Directed by Joe Wright
Opens December 7, 2007