Strengths of Technique
Atonement is what I would call a very good "structure film." Its construction could be described as meticulous, even perfectionist. Just watch how the first scene goes, with its opening focus on a dollhouse, with a trail of miniature animals marching out of it, eventually leading to a young teenage girl at a typewriter. As she walks through the house she's in, the soundtrack actually incorporates the sound of typing, and the camera tracks and flows throughout the set. Soon, we're introduced to a clever flashback device, which gives us some space before we realize there are chronological dots we should be connecting. Silent passages become as important as those with dialogue. And these techniques keep getting employed as the movie presses forward, working together to deliver an ominous sense of fate.
It's very juicy, actually, the way things unfold here. I don't even want to get into a plot description because so much of the entertainment here involves watching the plot take its time opening up. In fact, if you don't know the plot already, just avoid plot descriptions as much as you can -- most of the ones I've read give away nearly half of the movie. And that's because, without going that far, there wouldn't be much plot to describe. It's not that the movie moves slowly; rather, it savors every step and milks its moments for better dramatic buildup, giving viewers the pleasure of being able to piece things together along the way.
Although this method makes for rather delectable viewing, it does create the problem of potentially overshadowing the story itself. The cinematic techniques draw attention to themselves. For the first part of the movie, it's forgivable -- much of the visual mechanics work well to illustrate its elements of secrets and misunderstandings, since the camera is always spying, following, while the editing plays loose with segments of time. The second part (mostly the last half of the movie) suffers somewhat because the story has moved on from those concerns (we follow characters through their roles during WWII), so the technical showiness starts to stick out more. The major case in point would be the inevitably much-lauded nearly-five-minute tracking shot of the wartorn beach at Dunkirk -- though the shot itself is marvelous, one might begin to wonder what it really adds to the proceedings outside of the usual horrors-of-war revelations.
If the second half of the movie seems relatively weaker than the first, it does have a trump card up its sleeve in its brief final act. It may not spoil much to say that one major character, Briony, is played by three different actresses here, and for the first part, when the character is 13 years old, she's played by Saoirse Ronan, who is as intense and believable as they come. It's curious that she isn't quite matched by her 18-year-old version, portrayed by Romola Garai. But the movie plays its hand well at the end, where Briony is played by Vanessa Redgrave, who reasserts the character's gravity and gets a lot of mileage from a limited screen time.
Atonement's main strength is its flow, and its cinematic techniques are able to both bolster the flow and occasionally distract from it. But director Joe Wright benefits either way. This is his second feature, after the impressive Pride & Prejudice, which employed many of the same techniques. Wright is showing that he essentially wants to be another Anthony Minghella (further evidenced by Minghella's cameo in the film); that is, he's aiming for "classy" epics of romantic sweep. But he goes about it with a sharper eye, with more attention to what his camera is looking at and how it goes about looking at it. In his two movies now, the camera is its own character, a non-judging observer that nonetheless observes closely, thereby revealing the truths, desires, and pains behind its subjects' facades. What it reveals in Atonement's characters is actually, in the end, not all too complicated, but even if that might be perceived as a flaw, a viewer may be content in the ravishing way it's depicted.
(Released by Focus Features and rated "R" for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.