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Overall Rating

Awesome: 17.98%
Worth A Look37.08%
Average: 26.97%
Pretty Bad: 10.11%
Total Crap: 7.87%

10 reviews, 29 user ratings

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by Jay Seaver

"Missing a crucial ingredient."
3 stars

"Atonement" is a prestige picture with a little bit of everything - class as a barrier to romance, exquisite period detail, scenes of war that are awe-inspiringly horrible, beautiful photography, and narrative cleverness. A bit too much of the latter, actually; it threatens to make the film's emotional payoff little more than an intellectual exercise.

In our opening act, we meet the residents and guests at the Tallis country estate. Thirteen-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a serious child, always working at her typewriter, today working on a play to be put on at the party older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is throwing for their returning brother. Her cast will be visiting cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and her twin brothers Pierrot and Jackson (Felix and Charlie von Simson). Leon Tallis (Patrick Kennedy) has school friend Danny Hardman (Alfie Allen) in tow, figuring him to be a good match for Cecilia. A better match might be the cook's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), whom the family has put through college. Briony has something of a crush on him herself.

Briony has not been exposed to what a modern girl her age sees, though, leading her to make a terrible accusation which tears Cecilia and Robbie apart. The story then picks up some five years later, with Robbie fighting the war in France, Cecilia having broken from her family and volunteering as a nurse in London, and Briony passing on Cambridge to follow in her sister's footsteps, trying to directly or indirectly make up for what she'd done as a child.

The best part of Atonement is its first act; though we've seen many of this story's elements before, seeing so much of it from a child's perspective gives it a different feel than usual. That's not to say that the filmmakers play coy with what's happening, but they frequently will show things from Briony's point of view before revisiting the scene with her as a minor presence. Ronan plays Briony as a somewhat dour, self-centered kid; the kind other children don't really want much to do with and whom adults indulge. We learn enough about her that her actions at the end of the sequence can't be simply marked up to spite, ignorance, or the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony alone, while also picking up enough information to understand what is actually happening.

We also spend some time seeing Cecilia and Robbie recognize their attraction, and that's a nice subplot, but it doesn't really have enough weight to it that we necessarily buy into Cecilia trusting Robbie over her own sister, or for their later meeting and pining for each other to have the necessary intensity to carry much of the movie. The middle section is beautifully staged, but it suffers from the characters from the start spending too much time separated. McAvoy is pretty good in this segment, and he's got the best supporting cast and characterization of the bunch - his fellow soldiers take him for upper-class when he's all too well aware that the gentry abandoned him when it really counted - but his scenes with Knightley fall flat. Romola Garai is a good physical match for Ronan, but her Briony is less interesting than the younger edition: As much as writers and actors love characters who are motivated by guilt, they're pretty simple, in that they'll try to do the right thing and never feel it's enough.

As relatively bland as the middle section of the film is, it's necessary for the revelations of the epilogue, though it doesn't quite build to them the way the first act does. It's an interesting ending, which raises interesting ideas about the writer's urge to control stories, both within their manuscripts and in real life. It's a side of Briony we've seen from the very start of the film (a pan across toys which have been precisely placed rather than played with) and the way she chooses to exercise that control in the end is at least interesting for managing to be both terribly hypocritical and terribly earnest. It's an interesting idea, and benefits greatly from having Vanessa Redgrave lay the facts out, but it's something that has to be talked through rather than shown, and renders some of what we've previously seen moot.

I think the biggest issue with making the movie work as a whole is that we never get to see Briony be as smart as we're told she is. The reviews I've seen of McEwan's book describe it as much more about writing than the film is, which I think is necessary for the last act to resonate. Unfortunately, the only example of Briony's writing we get to see directly is giggle-worthy, an example of a child determined to use her entire large vocabulary (which absolutely fits her character at the time). What's shown of her later work doesn't really come across as brilliant, although that may be the point.

As uneven as the execution sometimes is, "Atonement" has a couple good ideas. It wisely saves the its best for the end, so there's something to talk about afterward. I'm still not sure whether that serves to disguise that "Atonement" is an average period piece or pull it together as more than the sum of its parts.

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originally posted: 01/31/08 14:02:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/03/10 cook sad yet stunning film. great acting. two thumbs up 5 stars
11/04/09 me gorgeous, almost as great as the book 5 stars
8/02/09 Samantha Pruitt very sad and depressing, but the acting is good and it looks great. 4 stars
4/22/09 Jean W. I felt so alone hating this movie. Fuss and pretension. No substance. 2 stars
3/24/09 Anonymous. one of my favorite movies :] 5 stars
1/04/09 Hello i thought this film was beautiful and perfect. =] 5 stars
12/15/08 Pamela White surreal ending but film drama lacking 3 stars
10/17/08 Simon A tad too indulgent and dramatically concocted for me. does make you sad, thats something.. 3 stars
8/19/08 Phil M. Afficiando Just wish it were less contrived and manipulative; otherwise pretty good 3 stars
8/17/08 Clackity Clack An example of how to take a good story and ruin it. 1 stars
7/27/08 Caloline Erm ... Lola did not see and know who attacked her. This was pretty clear. 5 stars
6/15/08 Melissa Stinchcomb I expected this movie to be better than it was. It jumped around too much.Ended badly. 3 stars
6/12/08 Jayson What was the fuss about? 3 stars
5/03/08 Calllie If you like historical romance this is the movie for you. Touching story and performances 5 stars
4/01/08 Butt waaaay overrated. Highly contrived schoolboy script. Watch Casablanca instead. 2 stars
3/22/08 Rollie It's rare when a chamber drama can function this well as an art-house picture. Great movie 5 stars
2/14/08 Ming Great love story...I enjoy watching it...Too bad its a sad ending 5 stars
2/13/08 Xavier Roca-Ferrer Utter rubbish! 1 stars
2/11/08 styace very shallow character studies . not enough depth to make me feel how i should have . 1 stars
2/02/08 earthangel Really lousy movie. What a waste! I agree with Butterfly about Eat Keira Eat 1 stars
1/31/08 Alistair Heartbreakingly beautiful and hauting -it grows in impact for days after 5 stars
1/22/08 diane livingston painfully boring, pointless 1 stars
1/21/08 Julie Movie was terrible. First time I was tempted to walk out of a movie before the end. 1 stars
1/20/08 maryjane good but not the best. still made me cry though 4 stars
1/20/08 orpy Made me want to read the book 3 stars
1/18/08 Buttley I liked it, it wasn't Best Picture good but I can see why they'd nominate it. Eat Keira Eat 4 stars
12/27/07 jeanne You soul-less pigs - Stick to "Knocked Up" THIS is a brilliant film, soaring and wrenching. 5 stars
12/10/07 Ole Man Bourbon Overrated and forgettable. Story is contrived and often silly. Good acting. 2 stars
12/09/07 Keystra Williams OVERRRATED beyond belief! 1 stars
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  07-Dec-2007 (R)
  DVD: 18-Mar-2008



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