A few years ago, the uncompromising auteur Michael Bay made a little movie called Pearl Harbor, which dared to set the most insignificant love story ever committed to celluloid against the backdrop of one of the most monumental events in American history. Never one to deflate his material's coked-up sense of self-importance, Bay effectively inverted the classic quote from Casablanca: The problems of his three star-crossed lovers most certainly did amount to a huge hill of beans in this crazy world. Or to quote Kate Beckinsale, recapping the carnage with exquisite sensitivity to main squeeze Ben Affleck, her love life was going so well, "and then all this happened."
The new World War II romance Atonement is, in essence, another "and then all this happened" kind of movie. But unlike its sappy Hollywood forebear, it's constantly reminding you of the arbitrary cruelty of war, and the fact that essentially virtuous people sometimes make bad, petty decisions. It's better, even, than the sweaty, epic swoon-fest it will inevitably be compared to, The English Patient. Where that movie didn't allow anything as messy as, oh, selling secrets to the Nazis to taint its view of undying love, Atonement is nothing but mess. In the course of two relatively brisk hours, we get gaping, pus-filled wounds, love forbidden by social status, horses shot in the head, sibling sexual rivalry and bitter truths that go untold until they're no longer able to do anyone any good.
If you're unfamiliar with Ian McEwan's book — or the film's sweeping trailers — you might think you're sitting down to a seething tale of class conflict and lust in the bucolic British countryside. And yet this isn't stuffy, starched-collar Merchant Ivory territory: Director Joe Wright subtly foreshadows the impending war with a shot of a fighter plane cruising overhead, or through the violent "thwack" of a typewriter striking paper — a motif that's even echoed in Dario Marianelli's propulsive score. It's that sound, and the act of writing in general, that sets into motion a chain of events that cascade from funny to lurid to tragic over the course of one short day. The authors in question are both introduced as moony dreamers: The rich, impudent 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who's busy tapping out a silly play for her cousins to perform that evening, and her strapping, twentysomething servant Robbie (James McAvoy), who's crafting a carefully worded apology letter to Briony's snotty older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley).
It's that letter — or a distinctly "anatomical" draft of it — that makes Cecilia's true feelings for Robbie come to light, even as it secures his downfall at the estate. Lies are told, constables are called, and what Briony thinks she sees on that lazy summer night becomes the "truth" that sends Robbie off to battle, in lieu of going to prison. What follows is the movie promised in the ads: the breathtaking crane shots, the separated-by-fate lovers chasing after each other in busy city streets, and the unsubtle visual allusions to Gone With the Wind. But Atonement is savvy enough to subtly drive home the unromantic — and currently vital — stance that even just wars are fought, by and large, by the poor. Whatever Robbie's ambitions, it's the upper-crusty sisters' actions — or lack thereof — that keep him stationed in the lower rungs of society, and — true to the film's title — they spend the rest of their lives trying to make things right again.
Often doubling and tripling back on the same scenes, Wright smoothes out McEwan's gymnastic, meta-novel flourishes while retaining the book's key aesthetic backflip, which underlines the notion that even great fiction can't heal wounds. The film's multiple points of view imbue even the smallest actions with great significance — both deserved and undeserved — requiring Knightley, McEvoy and the preternaturally talented Ronan to perform with pinpoint accuracy, without losing the spontaneity true passion requires. If there's something missing in Atonement, it's the gravity that would be afforded by a longer length: While most movies could stand to be trimmed by 20 or more minutes, this is one that would actually benefit from more backstory; the early scenes with McEvoy and Knightley are so electric, it leaves you wanting more. But Wright is always careful not to unbalance the horrors of war by placing too much emphasis on the spoils of young love. His film is the rare torn-asunder love story that has the balls to call into question the value of love stories in the first place.
Showing at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].