The French coast has never looked as good as it does in Atonement. Too bad this is not a movie about the French coast; it’s a film about a little girl’s overactive imagination.

When 13 year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a series of erotic encounters between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the maid’s university-educated son Robbie (James McAvoy) that she doesn’t understand—coupled with an accidental slip of the C-Bomb in a love note and a hard-to-identify molestation—Briony tells a tall tale to a policeman and sends poor Robbie off to jail, and eventually World War II.

Atonement, directed by Pride and Prejudice’s Joe Wright, is a film that tries to be several things, and somehow manages to pull off a “meh” at all of them. It tries to be a story of star-crossed love but without real chemistry. It tries to be a story about imagination but without any whimsy. It tries to be a tale of wartime deplorability but never examines war in a thoughtful way. It tries to be crudely funny at times but the sense of humor vanishes quickly. There are so many pieces here that are shot and edited wonderfully and they neglectfully never come together—even though Wright tries to tie it all in with one scene at the end. What we’re left with is an experience that’s maddening yet easy on the eyes. Atonement is a beautiful disaster.

Some will say that they can recommend this film because of the wonderful direction. I ask those people, “What film did you see?” Wright starts Atonement simple enough. We have a couple of scenes as seen through the eyes of young Briony and then we see those same scenes as they actually happened. Things get funny, interesting characters are introduced, and we begin to see some sparks flying between Cecilia and Robbie. Then at dinner one night two spoiled Ginger Kids decide they’ve had enough and flee the plantation. This is where things get serious, and since this is an adaptation of the novel by Ian McEwan, this is where things have to get serious.

I have a modest proposal for Wright: Why spend so much time setting up the maid, the mother, the reputation-wrecked young girl and her two brothers, the shifty-eyed groundskeeper, and the creepy Chocolate heir only to have them disappear after the first thirty minutes of the film? Wright would have benefited drastically if he had adapted just the beginning of McEwan’s novel and turned it into a Gosford Park-ian “weekend mystery.” The film’s crude tone and detached story-telling tactics could have stayed intact and we’d have ourselves a much better movie!

Alas, this is the film we got, so this is the film I’ll carry on reviewing. When the film uses World War II as a backdrop, things get worse. We get that Robbie is unhappy and that everybody else in his squadron is unhappy as well. What we don’t get is what trials and tribulations befall Robbie and his men to make them so downtrodden and desperate. There is a scene about midway through the film where Robbie comes upon the French coast and Wright does wise to linger on the chaos, destruction, and disorganization of the French army evacuating Dunkirk and destroying anything the Germans could use for gain. It’s a masterful shot that lasts 4 or 5 minutes. It’s harrowing and painful and is by far the best extended shot I’ve seen since the ending of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. However, what’s missing here is context. Wright doesn’t do a good job of building up to this moment, even though it’s treated as a major turning point in the story. It’s sloppy.

After Dunkirk, we get re-introduced to an older Briony who has become a nurse and from there the story gets frustrating. She sets about making things right for Robbie, who gets to spend time loving and caring for Cecilia in-between the action. Each scene, when viewed a second time, will reveal something more to those who weren’t paying close enough attention the first time (hint: red curtains). It’s a cheap ploy that Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton use to justify the ending. When the ending came I actually thought to myself, “Oh man, anything but this.”

This film is Oscar-bait that had hoped to be something a little bit more. Aside from the art design and cinematography, there isn’t much to applaud, though. The direction is mis-handled and McAvoy and Knightley fail to convince us that their love is anything more than lust, so it’s hard to get on board with this set-up. I also hope I’m not the only one who thought the use of typewriters in the score, at least outside the first 30 minutes, was a bit gimmicky and stupid.

Grade: C-

Atonement Poster Release Date: December 7, 2007
Rated: R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.
Running Time: 130 min.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Brena Blethyn, Juno Temple
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton (screenplay), Ian McEwan (novel)
Studio: Focus Features
Official Website: Click Here

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