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Awesome: 17.98%
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Just Average: 26.97%
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10 reviews, 29 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Sometimes Sorry Just Doesn't Cut It."
4 stars

With its literary pedigree, high-toned production values and esteemed cast, “Atonement” is clearly this year’s prestige film from England that seems to have been specifically designed to generate admiring review quotes, end-of-year critics awards and a slew of Oscar nominations. In the past, such concoctions have often resulted in fairly bloodless works of Cinema in which everyone on the screen stands around in museum-like settings while wearing exquisitely detailed costumes and reciting the kind of self-consciously eloquent dialogue that comes across beautifully on the printed page but which never quite seems to ring true when spoken aloud by human beings. Surprisingly, that isn’t the case with Joe Wright’s adaptation of the acclaimed Ian McEwan novel, at least for the first hour or so–instead of the ersatz Merchant-Ivory stiffness promised by the ads, it comes across as a living, breathing story with flesh-and-blood characters, a gripping storyline and genuine human emotions. It isn’t completely successful and it may not be the unquestioned masterpiece that some have been calling it but when it does work, it does so with the kind of raw power that may surprise fans and foes of this type of filmmaking alike.

The first half of the film unfolds during one long hot day and night in 1935 at the English country manor of the well-to-do Tallis family celebrating the arrival of their son from school, his equally well-to-do best friend and a trio of young cousins who are staying for the summer . The youngest member of the family is 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious girl whose literary ambitions make her come across as wise beyond her years. In other departments, however, she is most definitely a child on the uneasy cusp of adolescence, especially when it comes to her barely disguised crush on Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s housekeeper who has been putting himself through school with the dreams of one day being a doctor. However, Robbie is clearly more enamored with Briony’s older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and while she makes a show of seeming diffident towards him, it is obvious to anyone paying attention that she feels the same way towards him.

As the day goes on, Briony is witness to a number of events that she simply isn’t old enough to process or understand–an apparent argument between Robbie and Cecilia that she can see but cannot hear, a pornographic note that Robbie wrote to Cecilia in jest and accidentally had delivered to her instead of the more measured words of apology that he intended her to see and the clandestine assignation between the two of them in the library–and the workings of her overheated imagination lead her to believe that Robbie is actually a dangerous sex maniac who is doing depraved things to her sister. When she sees one of her cousins, a girl of about 16, being molested later that night in the woods by an attacker that she cannot actually see for herself, Briony puts the pieces together in the way that she sees them fitting and announces that Robbie was the culprit. Used to have her fictional inventions either pooh-poohed or outright ignored, even Briony is stunned by the immediate impact that her words now have as Robbie is arrested for the crime and taken away.

The story picks up again four years later and we discover that the reverberations of Briony’s accusation are still being felt by everyone involved. After spending time in prison, Robbie was conscripted into the Army and when we catch up with him, he, along with two other soldiers, is stumbling through the French countryside and arrives on the beaches of Dunkirk just in time for the mass retreat. Cecilia, it turns out, was the only person to side with Robbie over Briony’s “confession” and as a result of her love and loyalty, she was disowned by her family and is now living in a shabby London flat while working as a nurse. As for Briony (now played by Romola Garai), she has gradually begun to realize the enormity of what she did that long-ago day and is now trying to atone for her actions by forsaking college to study nursing, in part to emulate her estranged sister and in part to carry on Robbie’s medical dreams that she effectively thwarted, and trying to mend fences with Cecilia. Towards the end, the film fast-forwards to the present day in which we meet the now-elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), who has become a famous author in the meantime, as she publicizes her latest and, she promises, last novel–a book entitled “Atonement” that deals with those long-ago events–and explains to an interviewer why it was that she needed to write it.

“Atonement” was directed by Joe Wright, the up-and-coming British filmmaker who made an international splash with his debut feature, the 2005 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” that marked his first collaboration with Keira Knightley. With that film, the challenge was to find a way to approach the all-too-familiar material that would make it seem fresh as it could possibly be–a task that he more or less managed to pull off against all odds. Here, the challenge faced by him and screenwriter Christopher Hampton is to take a novel in which the story being told wasn’t quite as important as the manner in which it was told and transform it to the screen in a manner that would make for a compelling cinematic experience while still figuring out a way of retaining McEwan’s meta-novel conceit. (Those with long memories will recall that the makers of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” faced a similar dilemma in bringing that book to the screen and while their solution was reasonably elegant, it nevertheless failed to convey the same power as John Fowles’ original novel.) For the most part, Wright and Hampton manage to pull off the near-impossible task of effectively translating “Atonement” from the page to the screen. In its first half, the story is as forthright and mesmerizing as one could hope for and when the narrative tricks begin to slyly wind their way through the second half, it does so in a very clever and resourceful fashion. I can’t really go into too much detail about how they go about this because to do so would spoil too many of the surprises that the story has lying in wait. However, I will note that while there are scenes in the second half that may strike those unfamiliar with the story as being forced and somewhat awkward, they wind up paying off in spades at the end when we discover the reality behind them.

The problem with “Atonement” is that while Wright and Hampton have figured out how to translate McEwan’s prose into cinematic terms, they haven’t quite figured out a way to bring about the same emotional impact that it had on the page. When you read the last few pages of the book and discovered what was really going on, it made for a truly devastating experience. The ending hasn’t changed at all in its journey to the big screen but it now plays as more of a chilly intellectual exercise that a full-blown emotional powerhouse. This wouldn’t be that big of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the film thinks that it has provided the same devastating experience as the book did. The other problem with the film, one even more distracting that the muted impact of the finale, is the way in which Wright inexplicably decides to indulge in any number of overly self-conscious cinematic tricks during the second half of the film. By now, you have probably heard about the astounding single extended tracking shot, maybe five minutes or so in length, that follows Robbie as he winds his way through the beaches of Dunkirk as thousands of horrified survivors struggle to stay alive while waiting for the ships that will evacuate them. On a technical level, the shot is as awe-inspiring as the similar shots that occurred during “Children of Men.” The difference, however, is that in “Children of Men,” we were so caught up in the action that was unfolding that the technological feats that we had just witnessed didn’t dawn on us until later. By comparison, as Seamus McGarvey’s camera winds up and down the beach and captures one horrifying sight after another, it calls so much attention to itself that all we can do while watching it is wonder how many takes it took or look for any possible hidden edits. In the right circumstances, a shot like this can be truly thrilling (as anyone who has seen a Brian De Palma film can attest) but “Atonement” is the kind of story that doesn’t need such show-off moves and it just winds up being distracting. Although that is the most obvious example, there are others strewn throughout the second half and they always feel like the kind of silly tricks that a first-time director usually does just to show how fancy they can be.

“Atonement” is a very good film by most critical standards–the performances are uniformly excellent (Knightley has never been better and the three actresses playing Briony do such a good job of suggesting the same person at different stages of life that forcing them to all rock the exact same hairdo comes across as a cheap and wholly unnecessary bit of cinematic shorthand for slower audience members), it looks beautiful and it one of the rare British period literary adaptations that feels like a fresh and vital story instead of a museum piece. The only problem is that while I admire and respect its ambitions, the simple fact is that they don’t quite pay off in the end–at its most crucial moments, “Atonement” comes across as one from the head instead of one from the heart.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15981&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/07/07 01:14:18
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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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