Friday, December 7, 2007

A literary "Atonement" reaches the screen

Summary: "Atonement" is well crafted in the way that a thoughtful literary adaptation should be, yet the movie lags from time-to-time and ultimately suffers from a feeling of over-construction, the self-conscious air that sometimes arises from arty aspiration. Beautifully shot and slavishly respectful of its source -- Ian McEwan's much-admired 2002 novel -- "Atonement" proves impressive, but fails to deliver a knockout blow.

Director Joe Wright received mixed reviews for his adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice," but he did manage to infuse Austen with a welcome sense of buoyancy and youth. In turning his hand to another novel -- Ian McEwan's "Atonement" -- Wright appears committed to doing justice to a second obviously literary book. He and writer Christopher Hampton create a movie in which the polish and refinement of craft often outstrips the vivifying tumult of art. The longer the movie goes on, the more constructed and the less organic it feels.

The story centers on Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring young writer who -- at the age of 13 -- commits a crime that haunts her for the rest of her life. The adolescent Briony's uneasy about sex and mistrustful of her older sister (Keira Knightley). She also adopts a rather cavalier attitude toward the upwardly mobile son (James McAvoy) of the family housekeeper. Spurred by a pungent adolescent imagination, Briony proves that what one sees isn't always what it seems.

"Atonement" takes us from 1935 through World War II and beyond for the movie's surprising and poignant epilogue. About a quarter of the way through, Romola Garai takes over as the adult Briony, a woman who serves as a nurse during the War, as does her estranged sister.

Along the way, Wright finds time to put his virtuosity on display. A five-minute shot on the beach at Dunkirk seems like a bit of a stunt, a burst of show-off surrealism. But you can't fault the music and art direction, and screenwriter Hampton certainly seems to have grasped the themes of McEwan's novel, the deceptions involved in storytelling and the ways in which a single event can reverberate throughout an entire life. Wright also makes careful use of sound, sometimes treating it as if it were a thematic talking point. Pay attention to the clickety-clack of typewriter keys.

The acting all seems top drawer, with Knightley speaking in the kind of clipped British accent that gives words the ping and velocity of marbles hitting a highly polished tile floor.

More commendable than gripping, "Atonement" begins to look like a prestige item before it's done. In other words, prepare for Oscar nominations for a work that's not such much covered with the dust of literary pretension but shackled by a lack of passion. Too often, it's not the heart that beats loudest here, but the mildly intrusive tap of those all-too-present typewriter keys.

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