English drawing room dramas, when done well, can be gems of pure acting. Here’s where you get down to the essence of the art–an actor with little in the way of special effects or action, moving the story along with only their dialog and emotion. There can be no more direct connection to the audience. Of course, if it’s done badly what you get is an insufferable gabfest. And considering these things usually run two plus hours it’s a big risk.
    In Atonement, daughter of privilege, Cecilia Tallis, played by Keira Knightly falls for working class Robbie Turner, played by James McAvoy. Their slow dance of seduction is at a climax when Briony, Cecilia’s little sister, played by Saoirse Ronan spies them, gets jealous and accuses Robbie of a rape that happens later on in the evening. He’s taken away by the police and after a few years in jail is offered the option of enlisting, which he takes. Cecilia severs ties with her family and volunteers to become a nurse. This is at the beginning of the Second World War. They meet again and have a few moments before Robbie ships out to Europe and gets caught up in the Dunkirk evacuation.
    Meanwhile Briony grows up and realizes what she’s done. She too, volunteers for nurse’s training. Her attempts to contact her sister and make amends are rebuffed.
    There are several things that bother me about this film. The first that there is no heat between Robbie and Cecilia. Keira Knightly plays Cecilia so cool I can’t imagine anyone having the fortitude to break through that ice. James McAvoy gives a risk free performance as Robbie. It’s not bad but it’s not great either. The only great performance is turned in by Saoirse Ronan who plays the precocious and hot-headed Briony at age 13.
    Another annoying thing is the camera movements. There are too many tricks. They even run the action backwards at one point. It takes you out of the story. I won’t tell you why, but that’s the point of it. There’s also this thing they do with percussion. They’ll have some tapping sound on the soundtrack and then they’ll blend it into the same beat on the music track. It’s too precious by half.
    In the end, even though Atonement is set in the prewar years it is a story told in a very modern lit way. The ways they use to translate that feeling belie the drawing room drama of the piece. There’s a lot of artifice between the actors and the audience.
    That was the filmmaker’s choice  but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.


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