ATONEMENT (2007, directed by Joe Wright, 130 minutes, U.K.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK, FILM CRITIC
What would the holiday season be like without another stuffy European period piece designed for a matinee with your granny? They’d be much the same for those of us who do our best to avoid the never-ending string of Merchant Ivory-style costume weepies made to sate the appetites of the blue-haired denizens of the art houses. Still, like a bad restaurant with a convenient location, I find myself occasionally checking in on the repressed sex and waistcoats genre, usually coming to the conclusion that I shouldn’t eat there any more. The buzz on James McAvoy’s lead performance had me curious about this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement but yikes, we’ve been burned again by a bunch of green actors poking unconvincingly at the well-tended bones of WW2.
The social climbing gardener (McAvoy) of an large English estate is accused of rape, thwarting his forbidden cross-class relationship with the family’s young heiress daughter (Keira Knightley of Disney’s Pirates franchise), leaving them destined to get the ass-end of the of the WWII. The illusion that we’re watching real people and not actors lounging on a cushy set never materializes, leaving one’s mind to wander toward theories on why the whole enterprise is going so badly off the rails.
Maybe over the last 60 years, actors looking to summon the mood of the 1940s could draw on their parents, then later their grandparents. By 2007 this modern cast seems adrift, trying to summon an era to which they feel little connection. It might as be Cleopatra as foreign as their delivery can appear. By the time a battlefield pops up you know the director is going to fail at an epic scale, creating a war zone of perfectly mounted chaos and world of clearly delineated lessons to be learned.
At one time, such high-toned seriousness was anchored to honest-to-goodness theatrically-trained actors who had some real craft to show off. Unfortunately Atonement is saddled with the pretty-in-a-skeletal-way Keira Knightly, bravely clenching her jaw with an impenetrable stone face that is much more effective stumbling out of a club on Page Six. Humorless to boot, Atonement‘s heavy-handed and empty-headed presentation swore me off the petticoat drama for another season yet I’m cynical enough to believe its dutiful fulfillment of its genre’s conventions might be enough to please much of its hankie-carrying audience.