Critics have been singling out for praise something that has come to be known as The Shot in Atonement—in which director Joe Wright surveys WWII’s Dunkirk evacuation (when more than 300,000 British and French soldiers were rescued from German attack) as a lengthy, five-minute-plus single take—and no surprise there: it sticks out like a sore thumb. A film ostensibly about multiple perspectives, Atonement is edited and stylized to a not-nauseating-but-still-vaguely-insulting degree—gratuitously lit interiors, self-consciously arch framing of characters, attenuated sequences of crosscutting. Whenever there’s a point to be made, Wright makes it ten times over, until there’s no doubt that the audience…really…gets…it. So, the already celebrated Dunkirk single take, in which James McAvoy’s wounded soldier solemnly wanders throughout a richly color-drained tableau of well-manicured dread, seems completely aesthetically opposed to the rest of the film.
Because the visual strategy is so foregrounded, the entire sequence exudes an undeniable whiff of “look at me” stunt making. Wright seems to care much less about the mess of war and the stench of death than the ability of the camera to drift through and, more importantly, above it. He choreographs the thing like it’s on a very predetermined roller coaster track. Conveniently placed miseries abound as McAvoy’s tourist and audience surrogate watches the chaos unfold on the beach: horses are shot through the head and fall to the ground, men drunkenly cavort on a destroyed merry-go-round, a chorus of solemn, prideful soldiers sing along in harmony with the score, and in the distance a gloriously hazy Ferris wheel looms like death itself (I didn’t notice, but after the film, a friend told me a silhouetted figure was hanging off of it, flailing spastically—a world spun out of control indeed).
Of course, Wright’s ultra-aestheticized approach to his Big War Sequence shouldn’t surprise, since earlier in the film he tracks out from McAvoy’s speechless countenance to take in the horror of a country field littered with the bodies of sweet-faced school girls shot discreetly in the forehead (for sheer beauty, it’s the most bald-facedly gorgeous vision of violent wartime death in a “serious” film since Benigni lit a pile of concentration camp corpses as though it were a shimmering Christmas tree.) It’s unfair to morally prize one aesthetic approach over another (of course, Spielberg’s in-your-face vérité reinvention of cinematic warmaking in Saving Private Ryan was as overly strategized as any of Wright’s well-composed frames), but Wright’s grandstanding in this sequence bespeaks of a decidedly disjointed approach, as well as disappoints after his gloriously measured 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which smartly employed the long take as a coherent, unifying device. Atonement’s generally muddled storytelling may be the film’s biggest failing (the central conceit is far too literary to truly adapt to the screen), but the tonally awkward Dunkirk moment, which admits a great deal of self-satisfaction in its design, shows how desperately, awkwardly this hollow tale is reaching, grasping for a soul.