The lies of others
A wrongful act reverberates in the sumptuous 'Atonement'
Regret is everywhere in Ian McEwan's 2001 novel "Atonement," like the air the characters breathe or the water they keep tumbling into. It seeps into cracks, weighs people down, turns them brittle and exhausted. It's the stuff of life and the clay of fiction.
How do you make a movie out of this? How do you photograph a black hole of sorrow for things not done and wrongs not righted? Joe Wright's sweeping, ambitious reduction of McEwan's meticulously written book has one answer: Pretend you're making an impeccably acted period piece - the sort of thing that wins Oscars for costumes at the very least - and then go deeper, into mysteries of authorship, art, and human connection. The movie never goes as deep as the novel (no movie could), but it's a worthy approximation: a Merchant-Ivory movie that turns in on itself with a lucid and painful sigh.
The first hour, especially, is a stunning display of moviemaking and emotional gamesmanship in close quarters. Set during one afternoon and evening in 1935 at a sprawling British estate, "Atonement" sticks to a handful of characters as their world changes forever. The key figures are the Tallis sisters: 23-year-old Cecilia (Keira Knightley), recently graduat ed, ardent, snobby, bored; and Briony (a remarkable, eccentric newcomer named Saoirse Ronan), who at 13 years of age is already sure she's a great writer.
But Briony's not a grown-up, not yet, and there are events she can only decipher through a child's sense of melodrama. Most of these involve Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper's son who grew up with the Tallis family and who has been sponsored at college by the girls' father. To both Cecilia and Briony, he's a much-loved friend and the object of unarticulated longing; everything that occurs this day, in fact, flows from a jealousy too raw to know its name.
Wright seemed to come out of nowhere with 2005's "Pride & Prejudice," an assured debut in which Knightley gave her first real performance. Both director and star advance on that triumph, he with a smoothly propulsive commercial filmmaking style that combines acting, production design, camerawork, and music in ways that sometimes seem breathtakingly fresh; she with a portrait of privileged youth shoved off the ledge of shallowness into adulthood.
Does Cecilia fall? Is she pushed? It depends on who's looking; "Atonement" serenely replays certain events from differing viewpoints, exposing vast gulfs in perception. What a child witnesses as a cryptic event - say, an older sister forced to strip and dive into a fountain - can also be a teasing act of cruelty from an upper-class beauty to the man she's afraid to love. A missent letter can be a mistake, a scandal, or the pebble that looses an avalanche. Interpretation is all, and it is dangerous, especially when the police get involved. A well-told lie can echo for years afterward.
If I'm being coy about what happens, it's from a desire to protect the film's secrets, many of which are sprung on us with wit and a sense of fate turning beneath the characters. The film's opening hour is so beautifully wrought - with Dario Marianelli's luscious score driven by the clack of typewriter keys, and finely daubed performances by Benedict Cumberbatch as a creepy family friend and Juno Temple as a teenage girl caught between Cecilia's maturity and Briony's youth - that the rest of "Atonement" seems vaguely ordinary in comparison.
The film skips ahead to World War II, when Cecilia, Robbie, and a nearly grown Briony (now played by Romola Garai) are still wrestling with the aftermath of that 1935 evening. Because wartime demands sacrifice, it's easy to ask for general forgiveness from hospitalized soldiers rather than specific absolution from people you've wronged, and much of the drama in the second half of "Atonement" stems from one character's slow coming to terms with what has been done and what can possibly set things right.
The rest of the drama comes from an epic re-creation of the evacuation of Dunkirk, the massive Allied retreat of late May and early June, 1940. It's a muddy, bloody, vibrantly imagined sequence, the highlight of which is a stunning four-minute tracking shot through the chaos of the beaches, with the carnage of "Saving Private Ryan" fused with a surrealism worthy of Fellini.
That's the problem, though: The shot screams look at me. Wright is a born moviemaker but he doesn't yet have the directorial maturity to make a show-off moment like this organic to the narrative: You're forced out of the film into frank admiration of technique. The director seems too momentarily seduced by his big-budget toys to attend to the humans.
Or is that the point - that storytelling can turn purple out of an author's desperation and need? Is that why Robbie wanders into a makeshift cinema showing "Port of Shadows," Marcel Carne's unforgiving 1938 classic of romantic nihilism? It's unclear and thus a failure of execution rather than intent.
The film is never less than intelligent, though. "Atonement" comes to a hushed close in the modern day, with one of the characters played by an aging Much Respected Actress, and the puzzle pieces slide together with a final click that satisfies while refusing to console. It's a movie gotcha, simple and deeply emotive, as opposed to the detailed ruthlessness of McEwan's writing. The novelist's message - as patient and old as the Greeks - is that the most gifted people are often the most ruinously blind. Wright is talented enough to hint at the underlying implication, if not its graveyard chill: that art's the broom by which we clean up the horrible messes we make of life.
Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@ globe.com.