Movie Review: Atonement

When you write for a site that panders to the male 18-25 “geek” demographic, it makes it somewhat difficult to write about a film such as Atonement. It is a clear period piece, an Oscar hopeful and in many ways a sappy love story. To describe it simply would be to equate it to being a British version of The Notebook, just with a little bit of child molestation along the way.

The story begins with 13-year-old fledgling writer Briony Tallis (Soairse Ronan) living in her families massive country estate with her mother, sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice) and a few stray cousins. Also living on the grounds is the son of the house’s maid Robbie (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland), who has a serious and somewhat creepy crush on Cecillia. Also crushing hard is young Briony, who longs to be with the much older Robbie. But when Briony misinterprets an interaction between her sister and Robbie that she witnesses out her bedroom window, she becomes enraged and sets forth on a plot to hurt Robbie. And like that, just as Robbie and Cecilia begin to realize that they have a deep love for each other, he is accused of a terrible crime that he did not commit — leaving him torn from Cecilia and sent of to prison, and ultimately to fight in the European theater of World War II.

From there, we are tossed back and forth in time by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) and Director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) as they unwind the sordid tale of Robbie and Cecilia’s love that was struck down by Briony’s terrible lie. But while the twisted story of deceit, redemption and enduring love is interesting and moving, what stands out about Atonement is its visual power. From the British countryside to the front lines of the second World War, the filmmaker and his cinematographer (Seamus McGarvey, World Trade Center) deliver one of the most impressive visual experiences of the year. It sets this love story against a grand backdrop and plunges the audience deep into early 20th Century Britain.

One scene in particular, in which a war-torn Robbie finally makes it back to the beaches of the French coast in hope of returning to his beloved Cecilia after 5 years of absence, we are treated a beautifully executed single shot scene. It follows Robbie as he explores the beach, finding a British army that is beaten, stranded and nearly hopeless. To some, the scene may seem a little out of place — but taken in with the rest of the film’s grand scale it is not only fitting, but quite compelling as well.

Aside from the stunning visuals, Atonement also delivers with some solid performances. And while I can’t say that either James McAvoy or Keira Knightley have delivered their best stuff — as it will take a lot for McAvoy to top his performance in The Last King of Scotland and Keira Knightley always seems to be just “good” in my mind — they have delivered performances that are good enough to make their characters stand out amongst the beautiful scale of Joe Wright’s film. Also notable is young Saoirse Ronan, who is both smart and creepy all at once. If this little kid were my sister, I would be at boarding school for sure.

As a whole, Atonement is one of the better made films of the year. Its only downfall is that the thing that stands out most is its visual presentation. A careful attention to detail by director Joe Wright has allowed for a beautiful period piece, but it failed to deliver any stand-out performances. It is one of those films that come Oscar time, should see nominations for things like Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design, but it may not garner nominations in any of the big categories. For those that love a good two hour period film, this would be on of the essential films of 2007. For everyone else, it is good enough — but not great.

Grade: B+

The Upside: A beautiful visual experience.

The Downside: As a whole, not an amazing film. Also, the sex scene between James McAvoy and Keira Knightley is very anti-climatic.

On the Side: The 4.5 minute long shot through the Dunkirk beach scenes took under 5 takes to film. Also, this film opened the 2007 Venice Film Festival, making Joe Wright (35) the youngest director to have their film open the prestigious event.

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

Neil Miller is the Founder and Publisher of Film School Rejects. For almost a decade, he has been talking movies on television, the radio, and the Internet. As of yet, no one has stopped him.

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