In a previous life, I'm someone's perpetual guest at an English country house between the wars, a fantasy I've nursed over the last decade-and-a-half, starting with Brideshead Revisited (first the book, then the mini-series, then the book-on-tape, then finally the mini-series on DVD); and straight through to The Remains of the Day, Howard's End, Gosford Park, and the writings of P.G. Wodehouse.
"Things were much better upstairs than downstairs," Roger Ebert usually writes when another Arcadian movie opens. True enough: but things seemed quite good for the tuxedoed Wilcoxes and Stevenses shimmering through the mansions with an air of command. (Below the rank of under-butler--perhaps not so great.) I've probably read Brideshead a half-dozen times (once, in part, on New Year's Eve, and when I returned to the book six months later, I saw the spare cigar ash between the pages); I've listened to it on tape at least as many times, and I knew Astro-Girl was the one for me when she asked to eshew the traditional Wedding March in favor of what Grace had walked to when she married Leo in "Will and Grace." The tune? "Theme from Brideshead Revisited." I became so familiar with the customs of between-war English country living that I imagined I could have slipped inconspiciously into someone's Great Hall and fallen right in: languor from breakfast until tea, grog tray until seven, cocktails in the library, dinner at right, followed by the women retiring to the library while the men enjoy cigars and port in the dining room. Heaven can wait.
(And this only applies to fiction. The habits of the wilderness-era Churchill at Chartwell are something else I've committed to memory: from six a.m. breakfast brought to him by his valet to the manic late-night composition of his books and speeches.)
So it was hard, during the first hour anyway, to view a movie like Atonement without something approaching inter-generational jealousy, so fixated was I with the interior design, the clothes, the position of the chaise lounges by the pool, the--best of all--strange privacy such a large house and grounds would allow (the limiations of which privacy produce the two gut-wrenching moments in the film's first hour).
But, separating my own prejudices from the film itself, the first hour of Atonement left me spellbound, which response was so much bound up in one recurring image: the face of Saoirse Ronan, as 13 year-old Briony, whose stare out her second-floor window, then into the library, then into the darkness, will remain the enduring motif of this film long after people have forgotten the specifics of why exactly Keira Knightly jumped into the pond, or what exactly the twins were up to. What did Matthew Broderick sing to Uma Thurman in The Producers? "That face, that face . . ."
Saorise's Ronan's face--indicative of what Briony sees, and how she reacts to it-- is the story of the movie's first hour.
Which brings me to the second hour.
Was I alone in thinking, What the hell is going on here? I could give myself over to Robbie's (actor James McAvoy's) desperation in the hopeless first English assault in France, the one that ended in near-catastrophy in Dunkirk, before the evacuation that has never, in my mind, been given its due on film (even this one). I could understand Robbie's pain at seeing Cecilia after 3 1/2 years, and the hopelessness of the Allied defense against the first surge of the Third Reich, and the trying circumstances of volunteer nurses in dealing with the horrors of the battlefield, but damnit . . . where is this all going?
The second hour of the film has--what?--five flashbacks, two flashforwards, and (apologies to Chevy Chase's Funny Farm) one flash-sideways. And I don't know if I was alone in thinking: Okay, this is compelling, and this is compelling, and this is compelling . . . but where the hell are we going?
One other thing. Romola Garni, God love her, does not carry the mail as the 18 year-old Briony. The reason here is her face, which lacks the intensity and--let's face it--the beauty of Ronan's. The fact that Darni doesn't look at all like Ronan (four years can be a long time to a girl, but not long enough to grow a cleft chin) is the least of it. Part of the heartbreaking quality of young Briony is the sense that she will, at the age of majority, be a stunner; that Cecilia will win Robbie merely by the accident of earlier birth, like an older son inheriting the family manse. This is a promise that Ronan doesn't deliver. Part of the tension in the film's second half is the 15-20 minutes we spend waiting to see how Briony turned out; and when she is finally revealed, with the blocking equivalent of a drum roll, the reaction is . . . Oh, you. I was reminded of Ally Sheedy at the end of The Breakfast Club, who was supposed to be revealed as a secret beauty at the end, but who instead received (courtesy of Molly Ringwald) as having her face washed of its personality. This hurt.
And then . . . and then, the last five minutes did the impossible, and made the entire previous hour not only explicable, but wrenching. All is forgiven.