This year’s second major film to feature a manual typewriter has most of the components for excellence but its final chapter, can’t deliver the discreet and sublime magic of its rival (cross-reference below).
Best of show is the acting. James McAvoy as the beleaguered, falsely accused, conveniently punished Robbie, fills the screen with far more than his camera-friendly visage. He digs as deep into the role as the caverns of death during the WW II sequence fulfill and destroy dreams in Dunkirk and London. Motivated by infatuation that is doomed from the first act, 13-year-old Briony Tallis (who will become an author and is played with naïve conviction by Saorise Ronan) can’t compete with the nubile form of her elder sister, Cecelia (Keira Knightley soars in the early going as she’s deliciously ravaged by Robbie in the family estate’s library) so takes pubescent revenge by lying about the rape of her cousin Lola Quincey (Juno Temple).
A lustrum later, Briony is a nurse in the war effort and witnesses atrocities first-hand (now played with earnest devotion-to-the-cause by Romola Garai). The last Briony standing comes decades after that in the personage of Vanessa Redgrave who eats up her telling lines with consummate skill but fails to convince that her “atonement” is anything more than simple, selfish guilt. The fault for that fizzling of the pivotal moment lies in the writing (Christopher Hampton reshaped Ian McEwan’s novel for the screen).
The script has a few too many holes to keep the plot afloat. Still, employing a non-linear narrative works beautifully in serving up the story’s frequent surprises. Director Joe Wright takes full advantage of the opportunity and, along with the magical editing from Paul Tothill, keeps the pace moving beautifully, except for the initial foray into Robbie’s life as a private in France (trading a jail sentence for the front lines sets up the irony to come) which lags.
But the notion of presenting a just-typed play in a few hours (although one wanted to see the twin cousins—Felix and Charlie von Simson—hit the boards) was an early letdown; young Briony’s uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time in the family mansion could be “bought,” but her cousin’s too-quick-by-half cave-in on just who penetrated her maidenhood rang false; worst of all was the perpetrator’s marriage of convenience to quash any hope for justice—notwithstanding the dreamy circumstances of its telling (i.e., if this came from the pen of the one who went on to a brilliant career as wordsmith, then the talent as well as the desire for true redemption are suspect). As these little natters built up, the film weakened, slipping from the possibility of excellence even as its “competition” rose above what turned out to be red-herring plot flaws. No matter, it’s still a wonderful passage of time.
Good but not great is Dario Marianelli’s flowing score, which may well be the first major piece of music to employ the typewriter as a percussion instrument since the Leroy Anderson/Jerry Lewis classic bit of fun. JWR