Atonement (8/10)

 
Both the love story and the historical drama have been done to death, but Atonement is a fusion of the two and something entirely different. Based on the bestselling novel by Ian McEwan (which I haven’t read, and subsequently won’t address here), Atonement features delicately nuanced performances, an intricate storyline with a rather interesting message at its heart, and a message about the timelessness of love and the power of writers. It may be one of the best, and even more likely one of the most unique, films of 2007.Briony Tallis, played by relative newcomer Saoirse Ronan, is a 13-year old writer with spunk and attitude, living in an early 20th century English countryside, right before the beginning of World War II, in a massive mansion, where a dark story about love and betrayal is about to unfold. Keira Knightley is her sister, Cecilia Tallis, who gets involved with the servant boy Robbie, played with searing delicacy by James McAvoy. Unfortunately for both him and Cecilia, Briony has a crush on him, and subsequently accuses Robbie of a crime that he did not commit, sending into a hurtling rush decades of broken love, guilt, torn apart by war and separation.

Atonement is flawed by several things, one of which is its main actress, Keira Knightley. She doesn’t seem to be playing an actual character, but rather a caricature of that type of girl who falls in love with the servant boy. She consistently makes “oh lordy” faces and is always caught with her mouth hanging half open. I didn’t buy her at all. Another weakness is something about the story itself. It is unique in several ways, and where it strays from formula is where it succeeds the most, but I didn’t buy that one meeting of lips would throw into motion a years-long struggle. I didn’t buy that when Robbie went off to war he would constantly be thinking about Cecilia. War does things to you, and you’re never the same once you are in one.

Despite this, though, there are many things that make Atonement breathtakingly shocking, one of which is the relentless click-clacketing of Briony’s typewriter, which carries an ominous and slightly sensual feel to it. It serves as a kind of background to most every piece of music in the movie, which may sound boring, but actually serves as a beautiful kind of metaphor to highlight that this is Briony’s story, not Robbie and Cecilia’s. Another strength is its cinematography, which brutally focuses in on the horrors of both war and the tragedy of the story in an honest and straightforward way without any fancy work. On a side note, it seems every time a movie uses one long unbroken shot it’s destined to get nominated. Atonement had one, and it does get nominated. Granted, it’s a spectacularly done shot, but still. Seems a bit cheap, sometimes. Besides these two things, the actress who plays Briony once she grows up to be 18 carries the movie effortlessly and saves it from its endless sad pondering that came beforehand. And finally, the ways that make Atonement unique serve to put it above many other films made this year.

On the surface, this is a story about a lost love that spans a few years because of some person doing something bad, something that we’ve seen countless times before. But what separates Atonement from anything else we’ve ever seen is not only the way it’s told, but underlying currents of despair, broken love, heartache, mourning, tragedies of war, and many others. The film’s final five minutes throw you into a loop for what you just saw the last hour and a half, not the stereotypical twist ending, but something pretty dang interesting. It doesn’t cheat you, but it will cause you to look at the film in an entirely different light.

Atonement may be one of the most challenging movies I’ve seen all year. Sometimes it’s hard to look past the mundane surface and to the many emotions that bubble beneath the surface. Oftentimes nothing much seems to be happening at all, except shallow characters wallowing in their own despair-tainted muck, which is never fun to watch, no matter who you are. Despite this, though, and despite its flaws, Atonement is a powerful war drama with almost universally-great performances, an intricate storyline that will challenge you and possibly frustrate you, and one of the most unique yet deceptively simply storylines I’ve seen all year. I highly recommend it.

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One Response to “Atonement (8/10)”

  1. Atonement was a great flick; it looked and felt a lot like Pride and Prejudice… come to think of it, both movies have the same director, leading lady, both are based on books and both take place in England

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