Keira Knightley’s character, Elizabeth Bennett, portrayed in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice had an affinity for walking everywhere. I believed director Joe Wright’s depiction of Elizabeth’s affection for walking to be true to form and captured beautifully. However after recently viewing his latest project, Atonement, with his muse, Knightley, again as the main character– this time as Cecilia Tallis, I realized that Joe Wright is the one with the obsession for walking, hence bringing me to the conclusion that it really wasn’t his keen interpretation of the Austen character but rather his own personal taste as a director. This conclusion is exemplified in his latest film where any one of his characters can be seen taking a stroll within exquisitely framed compositions in this sweeping WWII drama. It made me wonder if Wright believed that it held some dramatic affect that added to the tension. The tension certainly mounted in me as I watched everyone partake in their own personal walk-a-thon. Unfortunately, this was all a little too pedestrian for me (pun absolutely intended) however I had yet to discover that this would still turn out to be a compelling romantic war drama.
The story’s plot line is about as rail thin as Keira Knightley’s body. It begins with a day-in-the-life of the wealthy Tallis family during a scorching summer day in 1935 in London which includes Knightley vigorously leaping out of her sprawling estate’s fountain, not once but twice. What follows is one of the most obscenely vulgar words divulged before the most innocent of eyes (not to mention some dumbfounded audience members), an over the top soundtrack intertwining typewriter and piano keys, steamy sex in a library, a salacious crime, a life-shattering lie, and did I mention walking? It may seem like a bit, but what I just covered lies just in the first thirty to forty five minutes. What’s left of the film is even more scantily clad.
To be fair, the movie has an intriguing premise. Thirteen year old Briony Tallis, played by Saoirse Ronan (say that name) is an eccentric little budding writer, who has just finished her stage play about love, ironically. Her alluring older sister Cecelia is secretly attracted to a housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) who returns that attraction. Being a writer, Briony’s outlandish imagination clouds her perception of reality. The young girl observes an erotic encounter between Cecelia and Robbie down by the fountain and during the course of the next twelve hours, comes face-to-face with three more highly charged sexual situations that would have left an adult of the clearest mental health in a catatonic state let alone a glassy-eyed thirteen year old residing in the 1930’s English countryside.
The last eye-opener for Briony is a rape of her fifteen year old cousin Lola. Briony falsely indicts Robbie for the crime and Robbie is then sent off to jail for three to four years. He is released under the condition that he will fight in the war. Now, I had already believed the film to be a tad lacking in plot meat, but there was no way I could have foreseen the upcoming famine of the next hour. We follow Robbie as he meanders the streets of Dunkirk, ailing, dehydrated, and still lovesick for Cecelia as he waits for the evacuation. Briony is eighteen and working as a nurse, as is Cecelia. Many of the scenes are illusions, fantasies stemming from Robbie’s and Briony’s minds that made me realize that even less is occurring on screen than what we were really seeing. By the end of the film, I didn’t know what was real and what was imagined.
Having said all this, the strength of the film lies in its details. I began to read Ian McEwan’s novel and came to realize that what’s substituted for plot is perspective. When I viewed the movie a second time, I sat back and enjoyed the presentation. Many of the scenes are repeated, due to various points of view, hence Knightley springing from the fountain twice. Capturing double perspectives of key events squeezed out ample time to reveal plot points, however I realized that this wasn’t the purpose of the film. McEwan’s prose is lush and detailed and Joe Wright’s elaborate interpretation of the novelist’s work is spot on though heavily laborious.
I am recommending this film if you care to see it twice, as I did. Maybe you’re one to enjoy a movie for its aesthetics or you’re one that likes a movie to get to the point. This is not the latter. While light on plot, the visuals are stunning and the performances are engaging especially from McAvoy which left me wanting more and longing to experience it again, without the personal Boston marathons.