For nearly the first hour, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell Atonement (2007) circumscribes World War II, if watched in mute, that is. The scenes are too lush, blithe and buttered in upper-class ennui to emit the faintest traces of war like gratitude or concern. While the camera voyeurs on English girls in pretty dresses, bitching about the guest list and dozing on the grass, it’s then the sound’s duty to portend doom: menacing piano keys, perforated by the vigilant, almost militant, cadence of a typewriter recur in war and peace. Although music is clearly a motif in Atonement, the cinematography is far too overwhelming to be sharing a blog post.
Class tension might have been the initial block in Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie’s (James McAvoy) romance. And petty social schisms seem a few years later amidst the war. Robbie serves the army now, no longer Cecilia’s family, and nurse Cecilia serves thousands of other soldiers. Estranged from her family is she for loving Robbie, wrongly accused of rape by her younger sister, Briony, (Saoirse Ronan) who was thirteen at the time. It was Briony’s accusation that sent Robbie to prison, then war, and Atonement is Briony’s appeal for redemption.
To show the contrast between war and pre-war, the mise-en-scene is incredibly indulgent up to the rising action. It’s a rare summer day in 1935 England and the dinner party is going to be so awkward that Cecilia just smokes, swims and sunbathes outside her mansion, wearing a different outfit for each doing. Here, the audience can easily feel summer’s drowsy spell. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey reportedly used Christian Dior stockings behind the lens to filtrate a sensuous haze: effective in simulating the hot weather, basked in pastels, warmth and tension, not unlike a Barbara Walters interview. Romanticism works well here, depicting the fleeting antebellum luxury of boredom and laze.
Pre-war scenes, elegant mise-en-scene. Atonement. Creative Commons.2
Not so much for the next half of the film set in 1941 (a bad year to be in England), which follows the trio in mostly battlefronts and emergency rooms. Explicitness alone would work well but Atonement just had to color-coordinate the outfits with the wallpaper so it’ll bring McAvoy’s eyes out more. It’s a shame when camerawork upstages casualty because it feels phony and hollow, inconsistent with the contextual intricacies. The audience is consistently fed poetic composition (the teal of Briony’s eyes in sight of crimson gore) but at times unnecessarily from already provoking situations: civilians drowning in the tube station, the disastrous evacuation at Dunkirk, or strategically supine dead school children in a meadow. The camera work then becomes obnoxiously conspicuous when we feel awe instead of horror. Bastardizing humanity’s lowest low for cinematic frill aside, Atonement is definitely one of the prettiest movies I’ve seen.
Robbie in combat...in a poppy field. Atonement. Creative Commons.3
For a movie based on one of the greatest books in recent years, it sure has a weak narrative content. Granted, the books will always be better. The attempt to adapt a film accurately to its text has proven so futile that ingenuity no longer dictates filmmakers: to an extent, visual confirmation of what we imagined from reading is enough. Director Joe Wright seems OK with this: for his first feature film, Pride and Prejudice (2005), he unabashedly claimed he had never read Austen. But literary adaptation in Atonement doesn’t nearly get the same precedence as aesthetic. The disparity is so grand that Atonement could might as well be McGarvey’s portfolio.
1"Atonement movie poster." Flickr Creative Commons. Wolf Gang. 19 Nov. 2007.
2"Cecilia and Robbie in the library." Flickr Creative Commons. Lori Tabor-Randall. 7 March 2008.
3 "Private Robbie." Flickr Creative Commons. Alice Dice. 26 July 2008.