Movie Review for Atonement (2007)

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Review #582 of 365
Movie Review of Atonement (2007) [R] 130 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $13.50
Where Viewed: Landmark Esquire Theatre, Denver, CO
When Seen: 12 December 2007
Time: 4:15 pm
DVD Release Date: 18 March 2008 (click date to purchase or pre-order)
Film's Official WebsiteFilm's Trailer

Soundtrack: Download now from Dario Marianelli - Atonement (Music from the Motion Picture) - or - order the CD below

Directed by: Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice)
Written by: Christopher Hampton (Imagining Argentina) based on the novel by Ian McEwan

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
Saoirse Ronan ("Proof") • Ailidh Mackay (debut) • Brenda Blethyn (Introducing the Dwights) • Julia West ("Holby City") • James McAvoy (Becoming Jane) • Romola Garai (Amazing Grace) • Harriet Walter (Babel) • Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End) • Vanessa Redgrave (Evening)

Click for 'Review Lite' [a 150-word or less review of this film]
Click to see photos from the Premiere of Atonement
Click to read the spoiler points for Atonement
While it will certainly be compared to The English Patient, Joe Wright's Atonement based on the novel by Ian McEwan and adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton falls somewhat short of the Academy Award®-winning film though there are some similarities. Atonement's weaknesses come from a nagging sense of contrivance that occurs early on when careless events such as a struggle to fill a priceless vase with water that ends with it in pieces and a blatantly sexual, vulgar apology note written in frustration ends up being accidentally delivered to the object of its aqueous affection. These events tragically are used to besmirch the reputation of young Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) just as he returns to his master's estate having found two lost twin cousins. Too bad, his noble recovery is for naught as he's swiftly hauled off to prison, wrongly accused of attempting to rape another of the cousins thusly dispatching his dreams of becoming a physician and of marrying his master's eldest daughter, Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley). His accuser would be none other than the fancifully imaginative and brilliant young 13-year old writer and younger sister of Cecilia, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) who mistakenly took their altercation at the fountain between Robbie and her sister to be one of an abusive lover and who opened and read the overtly sexually suggestive apology note Robbie asks her to hand-deliver to her sister for him and later presents it to her parents and the police as evidence to support her accusation that she did, indeed, see him attempt to rape her cousin—when, in fact, she had not correctly seen him, nor did her cousin. Nonetheless, the circumstantial evidence at hand in 1935 England was enough to put him away in prison over the merciful protestations of Cecilia who doubts her love capable of such ruthless and unscrupulous behavior and Robbie's housekeeper mother, Grace (Brenda Blethyn) who assaults the exiting police vehicle with her umbrella as it leaves the estate.

When the war rages, however, Robbie is given the option of joining up in the military to defend the crown or rot in prison. Obviously, he chooses to be 'free' and fights nobly on behalf of his nation, his command of French coming in quite usefully. Having lost all hope of ever reuniting with her love, Cecilia becomes a nurse to play her part in contributing to the betterment of her nation through service. The story then charts briefly the courses of the lives of Briony as she ages and realizes the extent of the damage she has done, Robbie as he fights the war, and Cecilia as she copes with her loses.

The story seems to take dreadfully forever to start to get somewhere, somewhere we've not almost seen and better in now numerous adaptations of Jane Austen's novels. With nearly a half of the film's ample running time being consumed by the events leading up to Robbie's expulsion, and a terribly long portion of that devoted to the non-existent performance of Briony's first play, one might find oneself shifting about a bit, accepting the primal urge for a bathroom break, or even a popcorn refill—who knew it was possible to eat the entire bucket plus a refill? And while that may seem impertinent given the immense on-screen talents and elegant writing and filming of this movie, the fact of the matter is that, and forgive this, it takes an inordinately long time to get to the twist and what makes the story sort of worth the wait—which occurs in the last seven minutes of the film. And be forewarned, the twist is metaphysically uplifting, perhaps, while simultaneously a huge downer, definitely.

As for the performances, they are good, but not great. James McAvoy has it in him, but this is twice he's nearly played the same character in two films in the same year, and he's better in the former as Tom Lefroy in Becoming Jane. Keira Knightley's rendition of Cecilia fails to bring about the electricity of this relationship that serves as the justification for the film. She's no Juliet, in other words, when it comes to really loving this Romeo. As these big stars, it turns out, are playing characters that are the reason for the story, but not really the story. The story is really about Briony Tallis. The story is really about how a young, slightly jealous, brilliant girl uses her powers of persuasion to ruin the lives of her sister and sister's supposed soul mate who then grows up living under this tremendous sense of guilt such that she cannot even begin the process of atonement until she's nearly dead. And, it is the three actresses: Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and eventually Vanessa Redgrave who play her through the course of her life who make this film--each one dazzling with blond locks and longish feet into which the character never seems to grow even in old age. She is the central character, and it is comprehending her and what she goes through that brings the most satisfaction from this supposed story of timeless love in a era of war. Unfortunately, by casting such luminous actors in the lesser roles, and focusing too much on their story, the story that really matters gets somewhat lost and not re-found until the final shocking revelations in the end—at least a few Kleenexs® are recommended, to use somberly as you watch the credits and reflect upon what you've just witnessed.

Therefore, while certainly a very, very good film, Atonement, is perhaps not quite as good as it might have been had anyone involved stopped and realized what the point of the story is and that they had actually three brilliant actresses cast perfectly to play Briony to her fullest rather than allowing the film to wallow too much in the romance of Robbie and Cecilia that fate seemed destined to prevent from the start.

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Related Products from
Other Projects Featuring Atonement (2007)
Cast Members
Saoirse RonanAilidh MackayBrenda Blethyn
Julia WestJames McAvoyHarriet Walter
Keira Knightley
Joe Wright
Christopher Hampton
CD Soundtrack

Review-lite Atonement (2007) [max of 150 words]
Despite immense on-screen talents and excellent direction by Joe Wright, cinematography, set-design and costumes, as well as great writing by Christopher Hampton based on Ian McEwan's novel, Atonement is not as successful as it might have been had someone realized soon enough that the story is not about the characters filled by the big name stars of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy; but, rather, about a little girl who's brilliance and fortitude cause her to commit a terrible act of injustice that ruins her life and the that of her loves ones for which it takes her a lifetime to atone. The depressing twist at the end seals the fate of this film.

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