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Movie Review: Atonement (2007) 
14th-Jan-2008 04:01 pm
Wait. Is this a guy's war movie or a chick flick romance? So confused!?!

Atonement (2007)

Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Saoirse Ronan, Harriet Walter, Brenda Blethyn

Directed by: Joe Wright

If you've ever wondered why I bother trying to see all Academy Award nominated films (as Atonement almost assuredly will be), despite the fact that the Academy often gets it wrong, leading me in the past to have watched some rather execrable movies, the answer is that doing so has lead me to see some really good movies that I'd otherwise have no intention of seeing.

Atonement is just such a film, looking like some Masterpiece Theatre/Jane Austen-esque middlebrow fare that my wife watches when I'm not at home or am busy watching sports. Luckily, it is much more than that, shot by director Joe Wright in such masterful fashion that it's hard not to admire the movie, even if it is a tad emotionally distant, as is common for these types of historical British films. Still, Wright is able to stir enough passion to draw us into the story, while using the reserved nature of his characters to heighten the intrigue of the film. Particularly effective is Wright's blocking of the characters, with the actors adopting some stagey poses that evocatively shows the unreliable nature of some of the scenes, which we see through the eyes and memories of unreliable characters.

The movie adapts Ian McEwan's novel of the same name, follows Briony Tallis, who as a 13-year-old (Saoirse Ronan) witnesses an encounter between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper's son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), which leads to a misunderstanding that irrevocably changes the lives of all involved. Wright deftly deals with the altered perspectives by repeating scenes between Briony's perspective and the actual events, without being unnecessarily repetitive, charging the otherwise reserved first half of the movie with real tension and eroticism.

The movie progresses five years, with Cecilia and 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) working as nurses and Robbie is serving as a private in the British Expeditionary Force during the early phases of the Second World War. Each character is dealling with the fallout from the misunderstanding, with the now-adult Briony seeking atonement for her role. It's here that the movie changes from a Merchant Ivory-esque social drama set at the Tallis estate to become a more visceral affair, including an absolutely stunning five-minute tracking shot of the beach of Dunkirk (one of the year's best scenes). If the earlier part of the movie was a little emotionally staid, this portion overcomes that easily, leading to the emotionally devastating final act that brings it all crashing together.

It's the work in the final two acts that make Atonement more than merely a technically superior romantic drama that one can admire, and become a truly engaging story worth investing in.


Related Reviews:
Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005)
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
16th-Jan-2008 05:58 am (UTC)
Great review, and beautiful film.

A very mood-heavy and atmospheric piece, and one which was hard for me to leave the theatre without feeling a little churned inside. I'm guessing that's exactly what this film aimed to do.
16th-Jan-2008 07:07 am (UTC)
I really never thought that I would have to say that I liked a historical romance film less that a man. I am a huge fan of films like this and was disappointed by Atonement. I will say that I agree with almost all that you had to say about it, except for the intrigue part. They left no room for any intrigue, for me. I would love to say that I am amazingly brilliant and am the only person to guess the entire ending, but 3/4 of us who went to the film guessed it (and we hadn't read the book). I loved the way that they subtly told you what happened, but hated the way that they revealed everything and then proceeded to hit you over the head with it for the last 15 minutes of the film. It was beautifully done and obviously is going to do well this year, but I am sorry to say that it will only be remembered by me because of the beach shot and the "tada" ending.
16th-Jan-2008 07:12 am (UTC) - Semi-Spoiler Alert
I don't think it's ever that hard to figure out that a romantic drama probably won't have a happy ending, so I wasn't surprised by the final revelation either. But the way they reveal the ending, and what that ending does to the rest of the movie is what I appreciated.

Even more spoilery... so be warned

Knowing that the story itself is an act of atonement, and not just the actions of the older Briony, is what makes the movie resonate with me.
16th-Jan-2008 07:19 am (UTC) - SUPER SPOILER ALERT (kind of)
What I am specifically talking about is when he is going to sleep at the underground type thing and the dialogue he has with his friend. I thought that they could have left it at that, and cut out her explanation in the interview with flashbacks to that scene again (we all know what happened and don't need them to show us the "morning after" scene).
16th-Jan-2008 08:38 am (UTC) - Re: SUPER SPOILER ALERT (kind of)
Well, I'd have to agree with the "hitting you over the head with it" type thing. But there are those movie-goers out there that need to be hit over the head with something to actually "get it" and feel the emotion intended.

From reading the book I already knew the ending, and even guessed it whilst reading the book, but even knowing that didn't detract from the film for me. I was still as moved by it, and probably even more so than I was by reading it.

I loved it for the way it was shot, really, rather than it's editing and construction.
16th-Jan-2008 04:19 pm (UTC) - Re: SUPER SPOILER ALERT (kind of)
I think it was necessary after they faked us out a bit with the scene in the apartment, which seemed to suggest he ended up fine. Also, it works as one of the last emotional beats to reinforce what Briony was carrying with her and the motivation for her story, especially when followed by the next revelation.

In any case, based on technical craft alone, I think it'd be hard to argue the movie is anything less than a 3.5/5, with it getting the extra half star from me because it worked for me.
26th-Jan-2008 05:06 pm (UTC) - Re: SUPER SPOILER ALERT (kind of)
ok ok, you have convinced me that it should receive a decent amount of stars based upon the actual nuts and bolts of the film. It was amazing to look at.
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