Love, the hard way
FOR a certain kind of critic, and indeed for certain discerning audiences, Atonement is fair game. Anyone suspicious of high- toned adaptations of English period novels, all those with an aversion to anything reminiscent of Merchant Ivory, all those who feel that the ironic possibilities of the British war film were exhausted by Richard Attenborough in Oh! What a Lovely War, and all those who believe that the moral tensions and sexual snobberies of the posh English country house drama were definitively explored by Joseph Losey in The GoBetween, in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Brideshead Revisited , are unlikely to take kindly to Atonement . If, on top of that, you remember that Joe Wright also directed that amiably flippant version of Pride & Prejudice two years ago, your barbs may be even sharper.
It is the measure of Wright’s achievement that Atonement , for all its echoes of other people’s glories, is a strikingly original and a wonderfully daring film. It grips from the opening moments.
Christopher Hampton’s screenplay — a masterly rendering of Ian McEwan’s novel — explores the boundaries between truth and falsehood, guilt and repentance, in scenes that combine a rarefied intimacy with passages of epic power and grandeur.
In few films are acting, writing, direction and sheer visual impact fused with such success in the service of a unifying artistic vision. The previous time this happened for me was in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, and there is a powerful reminder of that film in Atonement when Wright gives us a dazzling extended tracking shot through a battlefield in France.
This film is in three parts, linked by the presence of Briony Tallis, played by three women at different ages. We begin on the hottest day of the English summer of 1935, when 13- year- old Briony ( Saoirse Ronan) is writing a play. ( The tapping of her typewriter is a recurring and unsettling motif on the soundtrack.) From the window Briony sees elder sister Cecilia ( Keira Knightley) strip off her clothes and plunge into the garden fountain, watched by Robbie Turner ( James McAvoy), son of their housekeeper.
There is an innocent explanation but Briony, with her writer’s instincts and adolescent emotions, interprets things differently. Acting on a malevolent impulse, she accuses Robbie of a shameful crime, and by the end of the day the lives of all three have been changed forever.
The drowsy, erotic spells of summer are abruptly broken when the action moves to France and Robbie finds himself among thousands of straggling Allied soldiers awaiting rescue on the beaches of Dunkirk. These wartime scenes, with their carnage and desolation, have a truly awesome power. Robbie, having served four years in prison before joining the army, is briefly reunited with Cecilia in a military hospital, where she is working as a nurse. By then they are lovers, but no conventional love scenes are needed to convey the unconsummated intensity of their passion. Briony, also a nurse ( and played now by Romola Garai), is overcome with remorse for her actions and desperate to make amends.
It would be unfair to say much about the film’s final moments, when Vanessa Redgrave plays Briony in old age, and during a television interview about her career as a writer gives us a shattering insight into her feelings. Only now do we grasp the depth and richness of the story and the implications of McEwan’s narrative.
It is a film about truth and lies, the way they are perceived and the countervailing validity of wisdom and experience. These meanings are expressed not through the personalities of the lovers — who, despite their ravishing presence, are in many ways secondary characters — but through the eyes of Briony. She has destroyed innocent lives, perhaps her own, but for all her heedless malice, confusion and deceit we are unable to blame her. Through three interlocking and beautifully judged performances, she becomes the focus of pity and compassion.
All the performances are flawless. McAvoy is a more mature and confident presence since The Last King of Scotland and Knightley, too refined and skittish as Elizabeth Bennet in Wright’s previous film, attains a marvellous serenity and poise. As Robbie’s mother, Brenda Blethyn is deeply affecting in her two quiet scenes with her son ( one of them imagined), and the supporting cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch as a cocky industrialist and family friend, are all we would expect in a film as intelligent and meticulously crafted as this. Atonement, for me, is the film of the year: a profound and moving work of art, heartbreakingly sad, consummately acted and ceaselessly beautiful to watch.
* * * P. S. I Love You has an inordinately long precredit sequence. By the time the credits appear you’ve forgotten you haven’t seen them and they come as a slightly disconcerting interruption if you happen to be enjoying the story. And in this film, from Richard LaGravenese, the story has considerable charm and ingenuity.
This may be the most seductive and accomplished chick flick of the year. I know that term is frowned on. You may prefer to call P. S. I Love You a sophisticated romantic weepie targeted to certain female audiences. The most recent one I had seen was Evening , but a better comparison is with Ghost , minus the supernatural trappings.
Before the credits are out, Holly ( Hilary Swank) and her husband Gerry ( Gerard Butler) have had a mighty slanging match, kissed and made up, and started talking about babies. Holly is a real estate agent, Gerry a nightclub singer, and they’re madly in love. Then suddenly we’re at Gerry’s funeral. This is not the sort of sophisticated romantic weepie where scenes of mortal illness are permitted, so there’s none of the usual business with early symptoms, medical consultations or hospital dramas.
Death is essential to the story, but LaGravenese is determined that it won’t darken the mood or even add the odd shade of grey. And let no one suppose that with Gerry out of the way we’ve seen the last of Butler. He keeps turning up in flashbacks and imagined situations, as any good romantic lead would do, even when he has passed over to the other side.
More than that, Holly starts getting letters and messages from him. These have a way of turning up at the right address at the right time and are full of consoling advice and cheerful instructions.
‘‘ Go and buy yourself a new outfit,’’ is a typical one. A cake arrives for Holly’s 30th birthday and includes a tape of Gerry’s voice, ordering her to get out and ‘‘ celebrate herself’’. A holiday in Ireland is mysteriously arranged for Holly and her friends, and eligible new guys keep appearing. A singer in an Irish pub plays one of Gerry’s old songs. If I were Holly I’d have found all these coincidental happenings a bit scary. Indeed, with a few tweaks LaGravenese’s screenplay ( written with Steven Rogers) could easily be adapted as a supernatural thriller, with Holly tormented by eerie visitations.
But Swank is too accomplished a performer to misjudge the mood. She has inherited Julia Roberts’s mantle as the possessor of Hollywood’s broadest smile, and she knows how to invest her sunniest moods with an endearing edge of anxiety. The film is so drenched in Gerry’s Irish blarney that only a happy ending is possible. This comes down, I think, to a choice between William ( Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who reminded me of rugby league legend Mal Meninga, and Daniel ( Harry Connick Jr), who reminded me of swimmer Ian Thorpe. Presumably Gerry would have approved of either.
It’s a sweet and ingratiating entertainment. In addition to Swank, with her irresistibly chirpy frown, there are excellent people in the smaller roles. I liked Hilary’s chums, the bubbly Sharon ( Gina Gershon) and wacky Denise ( Lisa Kudrow), a romantically choosy one who has a set of sudden- death test questions for any male prospect who turns up in her life. The postcard Irish backgrounds make a nice change from Manhattan and even Kathy Bates, who can give any film a glum and forbidding tone if she sets her mind to it, is engaging as Holly’s mother.
P. S. I loved the scene with the wild Irish dog.
Consummate performances, unconsummated love: Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are brilliant in the extremely moving Atonement