- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Focus Features
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t takes a very talented filmmaker to adapt one of my least favorite novels into a movie I actually enjoyed, but director Joe Wright did just that with his 2005 adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice.” One could probably deduce that Wright chose his latest project based on his success working in the period romance genre – Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement” is swimming in British aristocracy and sappy relationships – but the film represents so much more. Aside from displaying Wright’s obvious maturation as a director, “Atonement” also offers that rare opportunity for a director to win an Academy Award without his movie being nominated.
The year is 1935, and while the rest of Britain is busy preparing for World War II, several families have managed to avoid the impending destruction by hiding away at their countryside estates. It’s here that we’re introduced to 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring playwright who's clearly more mature than she lets on. When Briony spies a developing relationship between her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and the servant’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy), she unknowingly sets into motion a series of events that will change their lives forever.
Partially jealous because she has a schoolgirl crush on Robbie, but also looking out for her sister because she believes he's a sexual deviant, Briony fingers the innocent servant after a nephew is seemingly raped in the woods. Robbie is quickly sent to prison, and the only way out is to enlist in the war. Four years later, and one little lie continues to haunt all involved. Robbie struggles to survive in a war-torn France, while Cecilia patiently awaits his return. Even Briony seems to finally realize the mistake she has made, causing her to seek redemption through her writing.
Though the film progresses the story in time, it fails to develop its characters any more than they already are. Briony may look older (and now played by Romola Garai), but she still appears the naïve child she once was, while Cecilia and Robbie don’t seem nearly as emotionally/physically affected as they probably should. This is a product of the writing, however, and not the acting, as Knightley and McAvoy both do their part to make the duller moments a little brighter. In fact, all three performances are solid, but none contain that special something required for Oscar consideration. It’s a shame, really, since the first half of the film shines almost exclusively because of them. For every great moment, though, there’s a not-so-great one, and a majority of the latter take place in the second hour, when the focus shifts from Robbie's soldier days to Briony’s time as a volunteer nurse.
The key word here is “majority,” as anyone who’s seen Wright’s five-minute tracking shot of Robbie walking the beach at Dunkirk can attest. The carefully composed sequence is awe-inspiring, and easily challenges Alfonso Cuaron’s direction in “Children of Men” as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the decade. It’s so good that it's worth sitting through the film all over again to see a second time.
Of course, that’s not the only reason to see “Atonement.” The first 50 minutes (which take place in the span of one day) are impressive in their own right, juggling Cecilia’s lust, Briony’s curiosity, and Robbie’s bad luck into a suspenseful roller-coaster ride that never stops to catch its breath. Even the way in which Wright handles the constant shifting in time – by replaying certain scenes from the point of view of different characters – never slows down the brisk pacing of the first act. And to think that Wright pulls it all off with one of the most memorable scores of the year – a strange but effective orchestral piece that uses the clicks and bells of a typewriter as its main instrument. It’s a chilling addition to the film, and one that is sure to garner composer Dario Marianelli an Oscar nomination come awards time.
“Atonement” is ultimately a movie about misinterpretations, the lies that come as a result of them, and the ways we try to atone for past mistakes. Unfortunately, this is the main problem with the film, since the effect of each act feels underplayed. Most of this has to do with the story as it was written, and though the aforementioned tracking shot, as well as a last-minute cameo by Vanessa Redgrave (as a much older Briony), help to save the film from flatlining in the final act, you can’t help but view the movie as two completely different halves. “Atonement” may look and sound like a Best Picture candidate, but that’s all Wright’s doing. He’s certainly fulfilled his end of the deal by creating a piece of cinema that will be remembered more for its look and feel than its lackluster story, and for that, he should definitely be rewarded.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
The single-disc release of “Atonement” is a mixed bag, much like the movie itself. While the production featurettes “Bringing the Past to Life” and “From Novel to Screen” show very little of the actual making of the film, director Joe Wright’s insightful audio commentary more than makes up for it. Even if you’re not a big fan of commentary tracks, fast-forwarding to the Dunkirk beach scene yields some interesting bits of trivia. Rounding out the set is a handful of deleted scenes, but the seven-odd minutes of footage is mostly just trimmed fat from Robbie’s war subplot.