Before diving any further into Joe Wright's often very challenging movie about the novel by Ian McEwan, let me predict that you will hear the word "Atonement" more than any other when the Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday morning. That's not really an assessment of how much I liked the movie (which I mostly did), just an observation about what we can expect very soon (and why, of course, it was given a not-at-all-coincidental wide release this week.)
If I was unable to fall in love with the movie, that fact comes from the built-in structure of both the novel and the flick. I won't spoil the major twist, which feels perfectly natural in McEwan's book but a little forced at the end of a two-hour movie, but I will say that by design it gives a remoteness to the love story at the tale's core (the love story which, of course, gives them a double dose of movie-poster eye candy with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, even if this movie in so many ways belongs to young Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis.)
The movie is at its strongest in the first 45 minutes or so, when Wright almost perfectly captures the atmosphere that nurtures all the best and worst aspects of Briony's budding creativity. Though the almost constant clacking of typewriter keys turns into a gimmick far too quickly, it's easy to see how she could be led to (willfully?) misinterpret what she saw one evening at the manor house where she was raised, an act of betrayal which will permanently alter the lives of her sister Cecilia (Knightley) and Robbie (McAvoy), the son of a family servant who lusts for Cecilia (and, in particular and understandably, a certain part of her anatomy.)
I don't want to give away any more than that, because much of the magic of this opening portion comes in discovering through whose eyes you're watching it all unfold. At its best, in particular with the closing shot of Robbie returning home with the defiant twins in tow, it's as good as and strongly invokes Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game."
It's at this point, when the flick shifts to the wartime lives of Cecilia, Robbie and Briony, that it develops a rather severe distance (again, much of that can be credited to what we learn at the end, but I stlll found it to be a drag on the viewing experience.) There's just, as hard as Knightley and McAvoy tried, a lack of passion to the tale that prevents you from growing more attached to either of them, or to Briony (who will be played by two more actresses as the story continues.)
Which isn't to say there aren't some stunning visual sequences in the second half, particularly the five-minute-or-so scene on the beach at Dunkirk, where Robbie and two of his fellow soldiers arrive in pretty rough shape. It's probably the most impressive set piece of 2007 (though I still prefer the arrival of Remy in the kitchen at Gusteau's in "Ratatouille"), and rivals what Alfonso Cuaron put together at that burned-out building in "Children of Men.") Just as an aside, I was waiting to see if Wright would let the black soldier in their ragtag group have any lines at all, which made me laugh way louder than I should have when he finally gets to utter his two-word, dead-on assessment of their rather dire straits.
In all, I would urge that you don't let any of my qualms let me stop you from seeing this fine flick, the kind of satisfying fare for adults (an impressive 50 or so of whom turned out for my 11 a.m. showing Friday morning) that we just don't get often enough for me. And as far as the Oscars go, it hopefully sets up a great battle royale in the category of Best Supporting Actress between Amy Ryan for "Gone Baby Gone," Kelly Macdonald for "No Country for Old Men" and young Ms. Ronan for her superb work here (and hopefully an appearance from Allison Janney for "Juno" too.) My heart's with Macdonald and my money's on Ryan, but I wouldn't count out Ronan either if "Atonement" goes on the awards roll I'm expecting.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some bills to pay, some grocery shopping to do and then a John Sayles (huzzah!) movie to watch at my local multiplex. Peace out.