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Overall Rating

Awesome: 17.98%
Worth A Look37.08%
Just Average: 26.97%
Pretty Crappy: 10.11%
Sucks: 7.87%

10 reviews, 29 user ratings

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by Eugene Novikov

"Second viewing required."
4 stars

ATONEMENT positively demands a second viewing, a luxury I haven't yet been able to indulge in. I haven't read Ian McEwan's novel of the same name, and approached the film as director Joe Wright's follow-up to his 2005 debut -- the beautiful, tender, wonderful-in-every-way "Pride & Prejudice." Maybe that's what Wright was counting on. His new film opens with strains that seem comfortably familiar from "Prejudice" -- a sunny country mansion, unrequited love, a hint of an uncertain darkness lurking beneath the mannerly production design and lyrical cinematography -- and then slowly, imperceptibly begins to morph into something else. As I left the theater, I was furiously rewinding the movie in my head, trying to figure out how Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton managed to get us from point A to point B. I'm still not sure, and I suspect they pulled a few unbecoming tricks along the way. But "Atonement" is something special -- a sweeping romantic tragedy that ends up, for better or worse, akin to one of Lynch or Mamet's puzzle films.

You get the sense, I hope, of why I find it difficult to write about the film extensively on the basis of that single, bewildered viewing. That I can return to this review after a second go is the beauty of the internet. In the meantime, I can share some reactions and a preliminary verdict, with the caveat that they are likely to be as unreliable as Atonement's narrator.

First, Joe Wright has undeniably Got It, and Pride & Prejudice was no fluke. A lot of filmmakers tend to basically surrender in the face of a period setting, figuring, perhaps reasonably, that with all the money spent creating it, they may as well just put it on the screen. Wright knows better. Some will no doubt marvel at the feverish battlefield scenes later in the film, but I was smitten by the first act, which depicts the plot's central act of youthful impetuousness in loving, excruciating detail. Wright builds a suspenseful rhythm; the movie rockets back and forth through time to show us crucial details, but the exposition never feels artificial, and the story drives forward even as it literally rewinds. He makes the Tallis mansion feel like a real physical space, oppressive in its ever-so-tasteful opulence. And when we realize what young Briony Tallis is going to do -- the moment crucially does not come too soon, unless of course you've read the book or seen the trailer -- it hits us like a brick.

Atonement's midsection is the mystery, and it is here that I think Wright engages in some dubious sleight-of-hand. The story involves Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), Briony's sister, who is unjustly separated from her lover, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy); Robbie is sent off to jail then to war, and Cecilia writes letters that may or may not ever reach him. Briony (Romola Garai), now 18 and wracked with guilt over what she did, works at a war hospital, where she is not permitted so much as to use her first name, and spends her free time clacking away on a typewriter, still the same fledgling writer she was at age 13 (when she whipped up a play "about how love is all very well, but you have to be sensible").

I don't want to give away too much, but I will say that at some indeterminate (at least by me, and so far) point reality blurs with... well, with something else. And I am not quite convinced that this transition is handled in a way that plays fair with us. The result, in any event, is that the ending comes before we know it: since we're not aware -- and have no way of figuring out -- what the story is playing at, the middle 45 minutes sort of float out the window. I concede that they may take on new, richer meaning when watched with knowledge of where the film is heading, and this is much of the reason I'm itching for a second viewing. I also confess to banging my head against the wall later, trying to rewatch many of these scenes in my mind's eye. But the film is almost malicious in lulling us into complacency and then redefining itself in a way that made me wish I had watched it differently.

As should by now be clear, my main reservation about Atonement is the extent to which the ending acts as a gotcha: it plays like the twist at the end of a Shyamalan film, or The Usual Suspects. This causes the troubling second-act disconnect I mention above, and leaves us reeling during the end credits. It's not really that kind of movie, if you know what I mean, and it's not clear to me that the "Surprise!" serves any concrete dramatic function. In fairness, the scenes preceding the ultimate flash-forward make it pretty clear that something is not as it seems -- watch the way Wright shoots McAvoy in the scene where Briony visits Cecilia's flat -- but the revelation is nonetheless calculated to absolutely blindside. And that makes Atonement as a whole a very strange experience.

The ending standing alone, on the other hand, is devastating, so I suspect that a second viewing will mitigate my problems with the film. In retrospect the whole thing is beautiful, no doubt; the sound of a clicking typewriter that runs through it is haunting in the same way that the ticking clock in Rosemary's Baby was. Wright, at 35 years old, is already one of our best, Knightley continues to stand apart from her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Garai gives a humble, hugely moving performance, and McAvoy has the air of a star. The movie is impossibly sad and difficult to shake. I will see it again soon; meanwhile, check it out for yourself. It may be getting Oscar buzz, but it is much more interesting than the typical Oscar movie.

(Reprinted from Filmblather.com)

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15981&reviewer=419
originally posted: 12/07/07 03:14:21
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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
11/03/09 me gorgeous, almost as great as the book 5 stars
8/01/09 Samantha Pruitt very sad and depressing, but the acting is good and it looks great. 4 stars
4/21/09 Jean W. I felt so alone hating this movie. Fuss and pretension. No substance. 2 stars
3/23/09 Anonymous. one of my favorite movies :] 5 stars
1/03/09 Hello i thought this film was beautiful and perfect. =] 5 stars
12/14/08 Pamela White surreal ending but film drama lacking 3 stars
10/16/08 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
8/16/08 Clackity Clack An example of how to take a good story and ruin it. 1 stars
7/26/08 Caloline Erm ... Lola did not see and know who attacked her. This was pretty clear. 5 stars
6/14/08 Melissa Stinchcomb I expected this movie to be better than it was. It jumped around too much.Ended badly. 3 stars
6/11/08 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
3/31/08 Butt waaaay overrated. Highly contrived schoolboy script. Watch Casablanca instead. 2 stars
3/21/08 Rollie It's rare when a chamber drama can function this well as an art-house picture. Great movie 5 stars
2/13/08 Ming Great love story...I enjoy watching it...Too bad its a sad ending 5 stars
2/12/08 Xavier Roca-Ferrer Utter rubbish! 1 stars
2/10/08 styace very shallow character studies . not enough depth to make me feel how i should have . 1 stars
2/01/08 earthangel Really lousy movie. What a waste! I agree with Butterfly about Eat Keira Eat 1 stars
1/30/08 Alistair Heartbreakingly beautiful and hauting -it grows in impact for days after 5 stars
1/21/08 diane livingston painfully boring, pointless 1 stars
1/20/08 Julie Movie was terrible. First time I was tempted to walk out of a movie before the end. 1 stars
1/19/08 maryjane good but not the best. still made me cry though 4 stars
1/19/08 orpy Made me want to read the book 3 stars
1/17/08 Buttley I liked it, it wasn't Best Picture good but I can see why they'd nominate it. Eat Keira Eat 4 stars
12/26/07 jeanne You soul-less pigs - Stick to "Knocked Up" THIS is a brilliant film, soaring and wrenching. 5 stars
12/09/07 Ole Man Bourbon Overrated and forgettable. Story is contrived and often silly. Good acting. 2 stars
12/08/07 Keystra Williams OVERRRATED beyond belief! 1 stars
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  07-Dec-2007 (R)
  DVD: 18-Mar-2008



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