Universal // 2007 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 18th, 2008
You can only imagine the truth.
Atonement is a film that not only exceeded my expectations, it completely sidestepped them. I was a huge supporter of director Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, to date the finest Jane Austen adaptation I have ever seen -- and indeed, one of the most purely romantic movies of recent years. On the basis of that film, I knew that he could helm a very effective and engaging period piece based on a great piece of literature. In Atonement, Wright begins with that same classically elegant and passionate tone and then quickly begins to use unusual methods to present the story in a surprisingly fresh and immediately arresting manner.
As for that story, I hesitate to tell you much of anything about it, if you don't know it. The story takes place in England in the year 1935, and allows us to look in on the romance between an upper-class young lady (Keira Knightly, Pride and Prejudice) and a lower-class young man (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland). This relationship takes a significant blow at the hands of a confused young girl named Briony (Saoirse Ronan, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey). Atonement, essentially, is the story of a sin. It begins by showing us the cause, then the effects, and finally the attempts at atonement. That is all I am willing to share with you if you have not seen the film or read the book, but permit me to entice you further in other ways.
I loved everything about this movie. I loved the characters and the story, most assuredly, but even more than that I loved the way the story was told. This could have been a rather long, melodramatic soap opera in the hands of the wrong person, or a heavy handed piece of preaching. After oh-so-many movies which treat audiences as if they were children, spoon-feeding them every step of the way, here is a film that is actually willing to trust its audience. Wright depends on us to be observant and discerning, and to use our minds as well as our eyes while watching the film. In turn, we are rewarded with a film that is far more graceful, subtle, beautiful, and heartbreaking than we ever could have received with something more explicitly literal.
Wright wants us to be observant in viewing this film, but he also wants to subvert our seemingly knowing observations. Consider an early scene in which Wright presents a scene that seemingly implies something obvious, and then watch the way he presents the same scene from a different angle to reveal the truth. Though not always so explicitly, the film is doing that for its entire duration, peeling back layer after layer to reveal the heart of the matter. All of this builds to a tremendously moving observation during the film's final scenes, and unless you are far more discerning than I am, you will never imagine how you get to the end of this movie based on what you see at the beginning.
Like most of the other great films from 2007, Atonement is also a strongly cinematic film, and Wright reveals himself to be capable of astonishing heights as a director of images. The first portion of the film is something Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud of, while a remarkably staged tracking shot later in the film rivals the masterful shot from the previous year's Children of Men (and no...contrary to what so many others have stated, the shot does not detract from the film and send Atonement into the realm of self-indulgence). Wright sets his human drama against a great deal of lush, romantic backdrops, from the raging sea to the ripe English countryside. Again, as with the best films of 2007, the sense of location here is very vivid.
The performances in the movie are all quite superb, but it's not so much the acting as the general presence of the actors that impressed me. James McAvoy has precisely the perfect eyes for this role; they always seem to convey just the right feeling during each scene. Meanwhile, the image of Keira Knightly in a silky green dress is one that most moviegoers are unlikely to forget. The actress and the costume somehow make a perfect match; the word "iconic" may be used in a decade or so. Most crucially, each of the actresses playing Briony must work to add an important part to the film's most complex character. Each actress is required to ring different notes, and each always manages to find the right chord at the right time. Young Saoirse Ronan is able to create a very memorable character during her portion of the film, and the other two actresses playing the same character successfully use Ronan's performance as the starting point for their performances.
I also want to make special mention of the Oscar-winning score by Italian composer Dario Marianelli. The first half of the film is completely monothematic, as Marianelli's fluid main theme carries the action. The music is frequently accompanied by the percussive beats of typewriter keys, and the score genuinely seems to be married to the images it accompanies. This is noted in a cue which suddenly moves from off-screen scoring to onscreen sound as Knightley's character ends the piece with a plucked piano string. The film's second half receives a much more diverse array of music, the most moving of which is arguably the "Elegy for Dunkirk" (featured during that aforementioned long tracking shot), one of the year's finest compositions. Atonement is a film of many attributes, and it's a tribute to Marianelli's talent that the original score is one of the most significant.
This is the kind of film that really excites me as a lover of cinema, because it works marvelously on just about every level. In addition, it is the kind of film that brings much-needed nobility to the cinema. We live in an era when many people have stopped taking film seriously. Since the 1980s, some say, movies have been dying a slow death at the hands of mindless "entertainment" that somehow grows less and less entertaining. Atonement stands as a persuasive argument for the importance of film. Like No Country for Old Men, it takes a great story originally intended for the printed page and finds a way to tell it masterfully using more images than words.
I know I've done this a lot, but I'd like to make one more comparison between this film and the other great films of 2007; for those curious, I'm speaking about the likes of No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Darjeeling Limited, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It was not an exceptionally good year for the "important" films. Most of the Iraq movies and message movies (outside of some very sharp documentaries) fell flat, and some were disappointed with the year because of that. However, there were a lot of great works of cinematic art, and a surprisingly large number of them seem to have a timeless quality. Atonement is among that special group of films that will be just as effective and engaging fifty years from now as it is today.
The film has gotten a pretty solid DVD treatment, particularly in the audio department. Marianelli's music sounds excellent, and the sound effects and dialogue are mixed very well. The visuals are quite solid as well, nicely accentuating the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, which ranges from lush and romantic (the first half) to gritty and raw (the second half). The film is certainly easy to look at, the scenery and camera set-ups are interesting enough on their own to make the movie compelling even if you're not really into the story (very unlikely, but just in case).
Extras are pretty decent, kicking off with a feature-length commentary by director Joe Wright. Wright is a low-key guy, there are a lot of pauses, and he's all by himself. Usually this means most viewers should just skip the commentary, but I'd still recommend this one. When Wright is talking, what he is saying is quite interesting, and he offers a lot of insights on decisions that had to be made with each scene. He's also refreshingly honest; pointing out specific moments that he felt could have been better if he had done them differently. He also provides commentary for seven short deleted scenes. Why were they cut, Joe? "Mostly because they were very poorly directed." That made me smile. A 25-minute featurette meanders a bit much, but still has some good stuff. A much-too-short piece (only five minutes) features interviews with Wright, acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons), and author Ian McEwan (who served as an executive producer on the film). This is quite good, but again, much too short.
I suppose I could make something up here for the sake of seeming like I'm a bit more objective about this film, but I would be lying. I love Atonement, and I simply can't think of anything to complain about.
Between this film and Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright is quickly becoming one of the most exciting young directors out there. Blending strong artistic sensibilities with strong emotional hooks, he creates movies that work wonders on your heart and your brain. His previous film was a joyous one, this one is heartbreaking. The previous film was made in a very traditional and straightforward manner, this one is made in an unusual and non-linear way, and yet they both share many of the same qualities in their craftsmanship. I eagerly want to see where his career goes from here. As for the specific subject of this review: Atonement is a must-see.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director Joe Wright
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
* "Bringing the Past to Life: The Making of Atonement"
* "From Novel to Screen: Adapting a Classic"
* Official Site