It’s December, moviegoers, so get ready for an onslaught of Oscar bait movies, puffed up with a sense of self-importance like a package of Jiffy Pop at maximum capacity. Of the many films at which we’ve been ordered to genuflect during the holiday season, “Atonement” may offer the very least bang for your moviegoing buck.
If one is to judge the new film version of Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel — brought to the screen by writer Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”) and director Joe Wright (“Pride and Prejudice”) — for its fidelity to the source material, “Atonement” is certainly a success. Unfortunately, since the book itself had narrative flaws, the movie offers no improvement upon them. And without giving away too many details, the book’s socko twist fails to resonate on the screen as much as it did on the printed page.
Wright’s “Prejudice” star Keira Knightley returns, this time playing Cecilia Tallis, the beautiful young lady of the manor who has thoroughly bewitched Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the gardener’s son whose college education Cecilia’s father has underwritten. Cecilia ignored him while the two were away at school, but the attraction between them is palpable.
Half of the story takes place one hot day at the Tallis estate where a number of incidents occur, many of them misunderstood by Cecilia’s young sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who fancies herself an author. Cecilia defiantly, perhaps seductively, removes her dress in front of Robbie and dives into a fountain to retrieve a chunk of an antique vase; from Briony’s point of view, high up in the house, it could appear that Robbie used force upon her.
Later that day, Robbie struggles to write a note of apology to Cecilia; he jokingly types out a rather obscene come-on before writing the proper note. Guess which one he puts in the envelope. Guess which young girl he asks to deliver the note to Cecilia. For her part, Cecilia seems thrilled to receive the missive, and she later gives herself to Robbie — again, Briony spies, and misunderstands, what’s going on.
When a young cousin is molested by an unseen gentleman later that night, Briony tells the police that Robbie is guilty, even though the audience knows who the real culprit is. And it is Briony’s testimony that ruins the lives of Robbie, Cecilia, and the entire Tallis family. (Briony is a literary cousin to the little girl whose accusation of lesbianism in Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” drives everyone’s lives to ruin.)
Then we cut to World War II, and Cecilia and Robbie’s star-crossed reunion, and Briony’s attempts at the titular atonement, and then the slam-bang finish that, again, bewitched readers but will leave audiences feeling cheated. As with the novel, nothing in the story feels as engaging as the complications and misunderstandings of that day in the manor house.
Knightley and McAvoy are criminally gorgeous and charismatic, and Ronan is a real discovery — the Fanning sisters may finally have some juvenile competition. (Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave are also terrific playing the older versions of Briony.) But ultimately, the movie amounts to rolling lawns, lovely costumes, and characters that simply fail to resonate.