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Director Joe Wright, who fine-tuned his eye for sumptuous detail and breathtaking scenery in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, has delivered another beautifully wrapped package: the Golden Globe-nominated Atonement, based on Ian McEwan’s novel. But one tug at the bow reveals there’s little at Atonement’s center to warrant comparisons to The English Patient.

Atonement begins with young Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) working up some drama on her typewriter before witnessing the evolving romance of her older sister (Keira Knightley) and the groundkeeper’s son (James McAvoy). The evening ends with more of Briony’s fiction, though this time she verbally weaves a tale across the desk from authorities investigating rape. Lovers are separated and the onset of war threatens to turn loss into tragedy as Briony struggles to revise the story.

As the setting moves from lush countryside to gritty battlefields, the musical score by Dario Marianelli astonishes in its seamless interplay with the action of the film. The strikes of Briony’s manual typewriter become the beat, for example, and the thrashing of an umbrella crescendos headlong into a flurry of strings in the next scene.

A compelling story, an innovative score, cinematography that skillfully winds its way through the country manor and between the shoulders of soldiers in the chaos of a ravaged beach … it’s almost painful to see how close Atonement comes to having all the right pieces in place. And yet, Atonement is all glossy veneer, a visual treat that rings hollow at its core.

The emotional richness of McEwan’s narrative and the oft-unsettling complexities of his characters have been lost in translation. Knightley’s performance may serve as the perfect metaphor for all that’s amiss with the film — a beautiful woman draped in a magnificent green dress gets caught up in a promising story of doomed romance and war and yet fails to deliver more than two distinct expressions. These would be ennui and sorrow, in case you were wondering, and any movie chasing after the Oscar glory of The English Patient needs more gears to shift than that.

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October 7, 2020

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