The Good: Moments of clever concept at the end, Costumes, DVD extras
The Bad: Boring, Not romantic, Unlikable characters, Dull plot, Pacing, Uninspired acting
The Basics: Despite the hype, Atonement is a long, boring film that takes too long to get to its initiating incident and too long after to have a point.
My mother and I have very different taste in virtually everything. Thus, it is odd enough when she recommends something to me and even odder when what she recommends is actually something I find myself enjoying. So, for example, she recently highly recommended Sara Bareilles' Little Voice (reviewed here!) and I found that to be far too derivative for my liking. So, when she recommended Atonement and told me how popular it was, I was somewhat skeptical. Having sat through it and several of the bonus features, I'm thinking it was a mistake to listen to my mom on this and possibly anything ever again.
Atonement has been receiving a lot of acclaim for its cinematography and direction and to some extent, I can see why; there are parts of the film that look good. But at the end of the day, Joe Wright has created a boring film that stretches on for two hours before creating a moment that is actually interesting; long after the viewer has stopped caring. It is not particularly inspired and the result of the film is a long way to go for little payoff.
Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner are living in the manors in the British countryside where they are spied upon by a thirteen year-old, Briony, who is infatuated with Robbie. After intercepting a love note between Cecilia and Robbie and catching them in the study having sex, Briony is jealous of her older sister and heartbroken. When visitors come to the manor and one of them is assaulted, Briony implicates Robbie and he is carted away. When the war comes, Robbie gets out of jail to serve in France and both Cecilia and Briony end up there as nurses. Briony carries the guilt of having wrongfully accused Robbie, given how his life is radically altered as a result and she seeks to right her wrongs.
There are three big problems with Atonement. The first is, it is boring. The whole theme of atonement only comes up in the last few minutes of the film and it fits in as something of an explanation for the pointless and painful two hours that precede it. Outside that, this is a long film that feels long and it is irksome in its style. Specifically, multiple incidents are repeated both from Briony's perspective and the perspective of Robbie and Cecilia. So when the film is insufferable, the scene is repeated with the 13 year-old watching and taking a different thing from the incident.
I'm sorry, any concept of Joe Wright being considered a great director ought to be gutted by the continual bland shots of the plain 13 year-old Briony that he cuts to. Actress Saoirse Ronan has a blank stare that is boring to look at, dulled by repetition, made absolutely insipid in its frequency. Wright's continued use of simply flashing her dimwitted stare up on screen is a poor use of the medium and one might argue he ought to lose his Screen Director's Guild (is that the Director's union?) card for mocking the moviegoing public with this pathetic attempt at art house style in a mainstream release. In all seriousness, his use of repetition, specifically of cutting to Ronan's blank stare, makes an already slow film insufferable.
Second, despite being billed as a great romantic epic, Atonement is not terribly romantic at all. There are repeated images of a typewriter typing out one of the least romantic words to describe female anatomy (no, the "c word" was never considered particularly flattering, much less romantic!) and the relationship between Cecilia and Robbie is rather common and dull.
It's not romantic, either. Wow, they have sex in a library. They sit at a dinner table and make moon eyes at one another. Briony witnesses Robbie break something of Cecilia's, which sends her into a fountain to recover its pieces. I understand this film is based on a book - this is NOT a review of the book! - and one hopes only that the romance was built up better there because in the film, it's a brief scene or two, a sex scene and a lot of an annoying 13 year-old looking on. I think a general rule for "great adult romance" would have to be, "not witnessed by an annoying and jealous 13 year-old."
Third, none of the characters are likable or pop as memorable or compelling. Call me jaded, but it's hard to feel especially bad for any of the characters. Briony is unlikable and a brat, Cecilia is unmemorable (though she looks good - yea green satin dress!), and Robbie is either too stupid to adequately defend himself or too dimwitted to make it in the world. Seeing the manors these people live in it is improbable that they do not have money. How Robbie fails to beat the rap for a crime he did not commit (Briony's testimony or not) makes one wonder what the authors think about the British judicial system.
Moreover, as a character study, there is something to be said about the failure to realistically address the other perspective. Atonement is focused on Briony's sense of guilt over wrongfully accusing a man of victimizing a child. This torments her for much of her life, especially when she is 18 during World War II. Almost entirely neglected is the emotional impact upon the jerk who actually did victimize the girl. That man goes on just fine, it appears. On his conscience ought to be both the victimization and the sense of guilt over what happens to Robbie when he gets away with it.
My point here is that the movie feels unbalanced in that it focuses on very limited consequences of the lie without looking at the whole range of it. In this way, Atonement often sacrifices message and moral for style. This is a film that sells itself as substantial, but it is fluff dressed up nicely. And the costumes are nice, so this is a decent point; the film's costuming is pretty incredibly, most notably the green dress Keira Knightley wears as Cecilia on the fateful night.
Yes, this is another Keira Knightley vehicle and truth be told, I'm not her biggest fan. For sure, I can see why she is popular. She is popular and successful now for EXACTLY the same reasons a Winona Ryder was a decade ago. She fills the exact niche and when she hits a certain age, she'll disappear just like Ryder. Until then, though, I'm not sure Atonement is her best work. Not by a longshot. There is no sense of spunk, no sense of life that she brings to Cecilia. Instead, I spent much of the film watching her and wondering when she was going to do anything remotely interesting. I would like to blame the script for that, but there is nothing Knightley brings to the role that steps outside the limitations of the script for her.
Similarly, none of the actresses who play Briony wowed me until the stately Vanessa Redgrave arrived for her cameo near the end. James McAvoy showed none of the brilliance I saw in him in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (reviewed here!). In fact, it was only looking at the IMDB to see what else he had been in that reminded me I had seen him in something else! Here he is bland, British and dull in ways that make him a poor protagonist for the bulk of the film. There is nothing that makes his Robbie distinct. Instead, the film feels very generic, like "Period Romance Story #15."
Except, again, this is hardly a romantic movie. Instead, I kept waiting for the film to go somewhere and by the time it did, I certainly did not care. On DVD, there are deleted scenes which add nothing of significance to the film, previews, a commentary track and a few behind-the-scenes featurettes. They are interesting and adequate for those who liked the movie, but none of them made me enjoy this sleeper any more than I already hadn't.
I am sure there are people who would like this film; die hard romantics who will accept anything with sex as romance. But for those looking for real love and romantic epics, this film is just a long period piece that is bound to disappoint.
For other works with Saoirse Ronan, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Secret World Of Arietty
Death Defying Acts
Check out how this film stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where the reviews are organized from best film to worst!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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