But Atonement's deeper themes are of redemption and forgiveness wrapped up in a slippery version of reality. These in turn give rise to questions about the relationship of fiction to truth and the limitations of art. It's an onerous burden for straight-ahead movie making; one wonders what a young Ken Russell or Lindsay Anderson might have made of the material. Certainly, either would have exposed the character of Briony Tallis for the horror she is. Instead, she's regarded ambivalently and -- as portrayed by the saintly Vanessa Redgrave -- nearly sympathetically. (Judi Dench delivering the exact same lines would leave departing audiences damning Briony to perdition and worse.)
American Splendor, a hugely different film, treated similar themes about art and reality with agility and wit. Unlike Atonement, though, that film was not locked into a progressively crude structure that inhibited playfulness and exploration for the sake of exploration. (The Ian McEwan novel ran into the same problems, and I finished it feeling cheated.) Meditations on fiction and truth demand a free, open treatment that both the material and Wright's direction preclude.
The evils of class and privilege surface in the first part of the film. But we're a long way from the heyday of Lindsay Anderson: Since then, Merchant-Ivory period-piece production standards have perpetuated upper class British life as a Princess Di fantasy regardless of intent. An Irish audience might roll its collective eyes at the Tallis' home life, but an American audience interposes itself between the script and the cinematography to sigh with wonder about how splendid and lovely it must have all been. (I watched the entitled family of five traipsing around its massive estate and thought to myself, "No wonder people were Communists." In Anderson's savage hands, more people would have wondered that, too, but we would all have been in an art house and not a multiplex. Entirely another blog entry, that.)
None of this is to ignore Atonement's strong suits. Keira Knightley is so good that you wonder why she wastes her talent on Pirates of the Caribbean I, II, and III (duh: They pay). It's her first adult role and she shines breaking class taboos and rejecting her family. James McAvoy's scene in which he finally confronts Briony brings home his suffering at the hands of the Tallis family with dignity and conviction. The evacuation of Dunkirk as experienced from the perspective of a few soldiers stands out as the one part of the film that takes chances. These chances pay off, too, which is a pity in a way because you wonder how much more a film Atonement might have been had it taken more risks. In the end, though, it's a movie in the hands of technician when it needed to come from the heart of an artist.