Universal // 2007 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // January 26th, 2010
You can only imagine the truth.
In 1935 England, thirteen-year-old playwright Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones) thinks herself an old soul. When she glimpses an encounter between her upper-class sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley, Domino) and the medical school-bound handyman Robbie (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) that she drastically misunderstands, her immaturity takes over and she tells a shocking lie with tragic, long-term consequences. Briony's sin and World War II conspire to take away the lives these three may otherwise have led.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its nearly unanimous critical praise and award nominations, coupled with an undeniably intriguing premise, committed acting, and lush cinematography, my first viewing of Atonement left me cold. Somehow I just couldn't connect with the characters, couldn't feel their pain. Atonement is a very clever period piece, literary and deliberately structured to keep us on our toes, and I thought that it was maybe a little too clever for its own good, injecting distance between the viewer and the cast by putting careful plotting ahead of emotional truth. I appreciated it as a sharply crafted film, and loved the five-minute tracking shot depicting the retreat at Dunkirk, but didn't find it a particularly engaging work.
Revisiting Atonement (Blu-ray) a couple of years later was altogether a different experience: this time I felt the inevitable tragedy quite deeply, sympathizing with all three major players and their intertwined predicaments. Perhaps knowing the film's twists and turns allowed me to focus on different details, perhaps I was just in a different frame of mind. My suspicion, however, is that my expectations were significantly altered, and I could see Atonement for what it truly is. Despite superficial appearances (and the quotes on the box), Atonement is not a sweeping, epic romance that defies circumstance, not really. Ultimately a movie about the harmful and redeeming qualities of storytelling, Atonement is a tale of lust with the potential for romance, and a treatise on the conspiracy of circumstance that nipped this particular romance in the bud. The moment Briony misunderstands what she sees from her window of her sister's encounter with Robbie, gears are set in motion against the relationship before the pair has even had a chance to realize they're a couple.
Seen through this lens, Atonement can be rather profound. It's pleasures lie not in revealing the power of love, but in plumbing the depths of the soul that can be irrevocably damaged by a childhood mistake. Briony is Atonement's protagonist, as it is she whose lies do so much damage and she who is looking for the titular sacrament, and her journey is the one to which we can most relate; the story is told from her perspective. Briony's life -- not to mention Robbie and Cecilia's -- would have likely been drastically different had the day that opens the film unfolded differently, but it didn't, and her struggle to come to terms with that harsh reality is at the heart of Atonement. Telling a story, a lie, ruined things, and maybe telling another story can set things right. Whether or not that is successful is left up to us to decide.
Universal's Blu-ray release of Atonement, while coming some time after its DVD and HD-DVD appearances, is well worth the wait, taking advantage of the format's large storage capacity with a transfer at bit rates in the high 30s. The image quality is simply gorgeous, with sumptuous colors despite the slightly faded palette and a bounty of fine detail. There is no sign of edge enhancement, mosquito noise, or compression artifacts; this is one of the more filmic Blu-rays I've seen. The DTS-MA mix is just as satisfying on the audio side, presenting a surprisingly active sound field with information frequently coming from all six speakers, thanks to both Dario Marianelli's brilliantly engaging and Oscar-winning score, incorporating the percussive clack of a typewriter, and aggressive sound design both during scenes on the battlefield and in more domestic situations. While this would seem an unlikely candidate for demonstration material for the uninitiated, Atonement is the whole package from an A/V perspective.
The special features are all ported over, in standard definition, from the DVD release; despite the box advertising a "Blu-ray Exclusive" this is merely access to Universal's BD-Live Center. Leading things off is a commentary from director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice), lending insight into the filming process, praising the actors, and so on. The nearly 30-minute making-of featurette has some value but is more superficial than I would've liked, as is the 6-minute 'From Novel to Screen: Adapting a Classic' segment. Finally, seven minutes of deleted scenes are on tap, worth a watch for fans of the picture but not particularly illuminating.
Atonement presents a satisfying, masterfully constructed narrative that secures its place as high-order filmmaking. How emotionally engaging one finds it may be a matter of taste, but it's difficult to imagine this particular tale being told any better.
Not only not guilty, but recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes