reviewed by Andrew James
The movie is basically two large acts. The first, takes place in a gorgeous English countryside mansion just before the onset of World War II. Here we meet all of our protagonists: the Tallises and their caretaking crew. Cecilia (Knightley) is the eldest Tallis sister. Her and her sister, Briony, have a strong, sisterly bond. One day, while watching from a bedroom window, Briony sees the handsome, young caretaker Robbie, played by James MacAvoy, seemingly mistreating her older sister - which actually couldn't be further from the truth. This is the young couple's first realization of the love they have for one another. After two other encounters and misunderstandings of something a jealous, 13 year old girl couldn't possibly fathom, the film takes a dark turn. When Briony sees her bond with Cecilia threatened by Robbie's presence, she takes matters into her own hands; destroying three lives (including her own) forever, with one false accusation.
There seems to be hardly a care in the world for this wealthy family; nearly oblivious to the fact that the outside world is about to explode. We get hints of an outside world when their young cousins show up; talking about thier parents getting a divorce. More guests and family members arrive at the house for a gethering and there is some small talk about the possibility of war. In this way, we understand who the family is, but we also understand where we are in the world and the circumstances beyond this small plot of a lagoon-like paradise.
The most glaring brilliance with this picture is its cinematography and score. The technical aspects of a movie, if they can win me over, will usually get this writer to automatically give the film fairly high marks. With Atonement, there are very few films this year (in fact only one) that even comes close to the stunning beauty of the brush strokes Wright has given us. From grassy plains to mountain crests and dark wooded forests, there just really aren't words to describe the awe inspiring shots throughout just about every frame of Atonement.
Some may see a bit of cheese in a lot of these shots. Wright has employed the technique of glare to blot out some images, slightly giving some scenes the feel of a "Chanel No. 5" commercial. Other times, the shots are very deliberate in their structure and it sort of seems unrealistic and obviously calculated, the way in which certain objects are placed or even the position of cast members. If you don't find it distracting, it's an incredible joy just to look at and take pleasure in.
What seems like an overbearing score at first, really becomes part of the picture. I mean that almost literally as several sound effects are used as percussive instruments. Sometimes it may be a ball bouncing on the wall or the footsteps of high heels on tile; but most notably the use of the clacking keys of a typewriter. The use of a typewriter early on as part of the soundtrack is not only just cool sounding, but also has metaphorical meaning that I won't get into here.
While I hate to be too specific in written film reviews, special mention must be made of a couple shots within the picture. Most obvious to any viewer is the unbroken tracking shot of the beach at Dunkirk. There are thousands (quite literally) or things going on in this five minute (or more) sequence in which the camera follows MacAvoy across the beach, then up onto the city streets. The camera leaves MacAvoy and travels around the city a bit watching all the goings on of thousands of soldiers doing what soldiers do while trying to kill time. There are choirs, and jokes, bar brawls and face after face that are fascinating to watch. Some men are playing grab ass, some are getting work done, while others simply stare off into the ocean and you can';t help but wonder what they may be thinking about. The camera then catches up again with MacAvoy and his crew and follows them along the street again. While these type of shots seem to be all the rage int he past few years, that doesn't make them any less dense in substance or wondrous to enjoy.
A second shot shows Brioni as a young woman looking out the window at a very old woman barely hobbling down the street with the aid of a baby carriage. The metaphorical possibilities escape me, but I like to think she was thinking about the eventual day when she is an old woman and will she have received atonement for her doings. Really, it's just an uneventful shot; but it's just one of many that had me covering with mouth in the realization of how great this film really is.
The plot itself did seem to drag for a just a few mintues here and there, but we're usually slapped right back into the story by one turn of events or another fairly quickly. In a nearly Oscar worthy performance, the great Vanessa Redgrave wraps up the story for us in what is possibly the best ending a film like this could possibly have and arguably the best ending of any movie this year. This author rarely cries in a film. And if he does, it is usually due to a really sad or touching film that impacts me with plot developments. Almost never has a tear been shed for these attributes accompanied by just the total shock at how much I loved this picture. I'm not saying that happened here, I'm just saying it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibilities.
Clearly a movie for the ages and should easily be up for several Oscar nominations; including best picture, best director, best actor, best adapted screenplay and best cinematography. Possibly even more categories have worthy admissions with Atonement, but these five have got to be shoe-ins. There are three movies this year that I long to see again theatrically. I don't have to tell you that Atonement is one of them.
IMDb profile - full cast and crew
Flixster Profile for ATONEMENT