Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in Joe Wright’s ‘Atonement’
Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in Joe Wright’s Atonement

Full of longing looks and pregnant with unspoken emotion, it would be easy to write off Atonement as yet another in a long line of British historical romances in the mold of The English Patient. All the parts are here: the handsome cast, the period sets and costumes, the lush cinematography and, of course, the lovers kept apart by fate and circumstance. That’s all fine, but it also sells the movie a little short. There’s a richer subtext to this film that kind of sneaks up on you when you’re not expecting it. 2007 has seen a number of movies that demand a second viewing and I’m adding Atonement to this list. It’s a movie that has a deeper agenda than merely pushing the audience’s emotional buttons.

That’s not to say that Atonement isn’t a first-class button pusher. There were more than a few sniffles in the dark around me as the film ended and it’s not hard to wonder why. This is a classic romantic drama that begins in the mid ’30s when the horrors of WWII are still on the horizon. Regally beautiful Keira Knightley is Cecilia Tallis, daughter to a wealthy family living in a mansion in the English countryside. James McAvoy is Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son with the piercing, steel gray eyes.

The two grew up together, but as they reached school age, they grew apart. Now, with college behind them, they’re brought back together and the old fires are rekindled. They flare up in an especially steamy scene in the mansion library, but the two are interrupted by Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister Briony, a budding writer whose imagination is bigger than she is. Not quite emotionally equipped to understand what’s happening between Cecilia and Robbie, Briony’s imagination runs wild and the consequences are tragic. The rest of the film traces these consequences for each of the characters as the two lovers try to find their way back to one another and Briony attempts to cope with her guilt.

That’s the surface of this beautifully designed and photographed love story. Director Joe Wright has a knack for this kind of literary period drama as he showed in his feature debut Pride & Prejudice. That film also starred Keira Knightley who received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Elizabeth. Knightley isn’t given as much to do in Atonement and she’s probably the weakest part of the film.

To those who were paying attention, James McAvoy made a splash in The Last King of Scotland though most of the spotlight fell on his co-star Forest Whitaker. McAvoy is less likely to be overlooked this time as he’s been given a more interesting part than co-star Knightley. He especially shines in a later scene where he confronts an older Briony for what she’s done.

Briony is played at three different ages by three different actresses. Sioarse Ronan is fine as the precocious pre-teen, but the other two actresses have more powerful scenes. Romola Garai is at the center of an important turning point in the film where 18-year-old nurse Briony comforts a dying French soldier. Vanessa Redgrave has a smaller part as Briony in later life. There’s a moment where she’s captured in close-up talking, a lifetime of regret and loss on her face and in her voice as she recounts her story. The scene is both sad and beautiful.

The most interesting part of the film is how well it seemed to condense a large novel into a 130 page screenplay. As with any film translation, there is a loss of richness and detail, but there is also a remarkable economy at work. A lot of backstory is implied and many details are hinted at without being dwelled upon. The result is a layered and textured film that accomplishes much with little and that never leaves you feeling short changed.

Despite the screenplay’s success, I suspect that the book is probably the more rewarding experience and I have to admit that I wasn’t always 100% engaged with Atonement on a surface level. It was all a little too much at times with the perfect costumes and lush photography and the British airs and meaningful glances. This kind of thing isn’t usually what I go for in a movie and for a while I was prepared to write it all off as a nice looking trifle; enjoyable but instantly forgettable.

Had the film been all surface, this opinion probably would’ve stood, but even from the start it was clear there was something else going on underneath it all. The narrative was unconventional in that it would show an important event occurring from the perspective of Briony, usually at a distance. The story would then backtrack and we’d see the same event from the perspective of the participants. This isn’t any kind of revolutionary technique, but it’s not the kind of thing you expect from an elegant, staid romance.

Reflections were also a recurring visual motif through out the film. Combined with the multiple perspectives, it added to a constant blurring of the lines between what was real, what was remembered and what was imagined. In the end, the film questions what is more important: the truth or simply the impact of what is perceived to be true.

Though Atonement offers a classic set-up, I didn’t expect how it would all unfold and resolve itself. The premise is just a springboard for something deeper and more reflective and that’s what sets it apart from some of the things that have come before it. In part, it’s a rumination on the limits of the power of imagination; the way it can heal and destroy. It’s about the mistakes we make and the consequences they have that can never be taken back no matter how sorry we are.

Of course, I shouldn’t forget Atonement is also a love story and a good one.

Atonement. USA/UK 2007. Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton from a novel by Ian McEwan. Cinematography by Seamus Mcgarvey. Edited by Paul Tothill. Music score composed by Dario Marianelli. Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave. 2 hours 3 minutes. MPAA Rating: R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality. 3.5 stars (out of 5) 

35 Responses to “Review: Atonement (2007) *** 1/2”

  1. ..the cloud i’m lost in…haven’t seen atonement…but i’m pretty sure it wow me…

    i saw no country and that didn’t go well for me either ??

    what type of film fan i’m i….???

    ‘i never understood what it meant to be misunderstood/and even if i did/i couldn’t care less’ :)

    and craig i’m not really crushed out on k.k. although i guess i can why many are wowed by her.

    yep i’m letting my geek cred pile up.

  2. hmm but since you’ve seen the movie first is it possible that if you read the will now seem like cliff notes ?????

  3. The great thing about movies Glimmer is there is something for everyone, but not everything is for all people.

    There’s on harm in not liking No Country. We disagree on that, but you’re not alone. There isn’t a wrong or a right answer. Even what’s wrong and right for you might change day to day depending on your mood.

    I’m not sure what kind of film fan you are yet. Give me a list of your favorites and least favorites you’ve seen this year and maybe I could tell you.

    Maybe you’re a rebel and just don’t fit the mold. Not a bad way to be.

    As for reading the book after the movie…I did it with No Country and really enjoyed the book. It didn’t effect my opinion of the movie much, but the book had richness and detail that the movie naturally lacked.

    I find when I read a book first, the movies are usually disappointing because they don’t match up with what was in my head and there are always things left out.

    When I do it the other way around, the movie stands on its own, yet the book is still enjoyable because it provides its own depth. Does that make any sense at all?

    Anyway, there are layers to Atonement that I think might play better on the page and there’s this whole theme about the author’s role in their own creations that might have a bigger impact on the page.

  4. the adjuster/atom egoyan
    fallen angels/wong kar wai
    mulholland drive/david lynch
    lars and the real girl(of course)/craig gillespie
    summer/eric rohmer
    gegan die wand/faith akin
    lilja 4-ever/lukas moodysson
    trust/hal hartley

  5. happiness/todd solondz

  6. hmm those areall in the like category !!! :)

  7. Great review, Craig. For a film that took a little time to more fully sneak up on you it inspired not just an elegantly written review, but one with poetry in its heart.

  8. You’re a person who likes their films with an edge. You’re willing to sacrifice the traditions of classic narrative and technique to have your mind blown in some unexpected fashion.

    You’re a cinema adventurist. You don’t watch movies to kill time or make you feel all is right with the world, but you’re open minded as long as the movie is interesting.

    How does that sound?

  9. I like this. A psychological profile developed from a list of favorite films. And a seemingly good one at that.

  10. i think i’ve copy/paste(save) your words and just quote them when some asks me to ‘explain’ what i like. ha ha….. :)

  11. This goes against my new policy of keeping my trap shut regarding my opinions of my own reviews, but let’s just say Sartre that maybe I will like this review better in the morning and leave it at that.

    Did I come close to the mark, Glimmer? I meant to add that’s a nice selection. I’m troubled by Solondz, but I think I might see the appeal. Otherwise, that’s a solid list.

  12. hey sartre !!!!!! :)

    but….craig..happiness has p.s.h. in this the only movie he’s in ‘indie’ doesn’t count ???

    ha ha ha…..

    sorry i’m using the p.s.h. is it *rule* for the win. :)

    thanks, for the kind words craig…. :)

  13. i really need to grab some mainstream or indie kid.hey…and say so you liked little miss sunshine….

    well i know of a ‘similiar’ indie comedy about a dysfunctional’ll love it… ;)

  14. There are a lot of things I like about Happiness and PSH is one of them, but in the end I felt like Solondz was just pushing buttons for the sake of pushing buttons.

    And I don’t think I can watch one more film where Jane Adams is humiliated. She’s like the indie punching bag.

    As for the kind words, I can only speak the truth….except when I’m not.

  15. dude,the pushing buttons was atmosphere were most stuff is totally toothless.good move tood….

    yes, i replied with the cliched reply. and if ellen page as ‘juno’ was here she could tell us which iggy + stooges song had the lyric with his needing a lover with an alibi.

    but as long as you don’t have to check your ring size..or talk to jessica’ll be ok… ;)

    hmm how about this craig… ‘unauthorized copying,public performance and broadcasting or the humilation of jane adams prohibted’ ;)

    and, ‘indie punching bag’ can you get a lifetime achievement award for that. ?? hmm….

  16. I see what you’re saying about the button pushing, I really do. And I don’t question your choice, I just wasn’t feelin’ it.

    They could name the lifetime award after Jane.

    So riddle me this, you haven’t quite come right out and said it, but I’m sensing you agree with me about Juno?

  17. juno…..really it was harmless enough……i didn’t hate it….and yes i laughed (out loud even) at some of the earlier jokes. i even got a round of bonus comedy…

    to the left of was an eldery couple i’m guessing late 50’s/early 60’s and to beside them a younger couple.guessing on of them was thier son or daughter….so anyway…

    whne juno was at the planned parenthood type place or where ever and the condom/junk/pie joke hit.

    the audience very much laughed and laughed.and the elerdy female.says in a very starled(sp?) tone/voice… ‘junk’/’junk’ ??what she say ??what’s that ?? the phrasing she used was pretty similiar to that…

    she’s looking at the younger female confused..and confused… the younger female….points downward and aim crotch level. and *now* the context junk was used is so clear to ‘grandma’. loved that was classic…. :)

    anyway juno…like lots it was bareable/ok whatever. it just hit me with the impact of an after dinner mint.

    maybe it couldn’t. i guess this meant to be an ‘indie’ film that crosses over to the mainstream.and i’m not the mainstream….and fox s.l. is proobably gonna push this likes it’s a an inch away from being a summer blockbuster…….

    maybe because ellen page has youth and beauty…

    the former i’m losing rapidly.nah forget that’s lost it’s gone. the later i never had……

    maybe i felt supid since cicra now pretty much nothing artwise or well anything gets through to me/that i really love i see/experience something else that i don’t even want to support on aesthetics. yeah….

    maybe i did like juno..because my soul had grown cold.
    maybe i’m so ugly ‘weird’ guitars that will never canonized or appreciated by the ‘indie’ music set makes me beautiful……

    no juno the stooges are so cool. hell the music i love didn’t even exist when i was in high school. beat that juno. ha ha………

    this…movie…juno really didn’t work for me. but the crowd went crazy..and juno breakout guesss it almost there. guess i feel stupid…..for there being another wave i don’t to ride……

    guess i further dislike juno because this is going to be pushed as an example of ‘indie’ by big press/and by the mainstream movie fans….

    it always so about the ‘normal’ film. you can’t even dream anything different….

    (stolem from a review of film i like) “worlds inhabit themes of lost and loneliness, darkness and despair, and the hopefulness that there is possibly a life other than the daydreaming.”

    and the real losers aka not the hipsters like juno cry for all the wrong reasons..and proabably the right ones too. :(

  18. I think if you can remove all the buzz and hype around Juno, it goes down better. I never said it was horrible. It was pretty harmless really, but when you’re kinda ‘meh’ about a movie and everyone around you is going apeshit for it…well it’s easy to have a bad reaction.

    Ellen Page: Cute as a button. Glimmer, you should keep an eye out for The Tracey Fragments. You might like it. It’s strange…in a good way.

  19. Our mutual friend Ryan (Rollerboy) first pointed out how your comments often read like poetry, glim. It’s so true, but now I’m seeing them like lyrics for songs with energy, wit, and occasional threads of melancholy.

    “maybe i did like juno..because my soul had grown cold.
    maybe i’m so ugly ‘weird’ guitars that will never canonized or appreciated by the ‘indie’ music set makes me beautiful……”

    Now that’s cool. And I’m not talking the artificial hipster variety.

  20. well i *cheated* that round. ha ha…

    bleach(uk) has a lyric from their song ‘paint my face’

    that equals…. “maybe i’m so ugly/you make me beautiful…”

    for years i’ve been chaning that phrase to… “maybe i’m so ugly/guitars make me beautiful..”

    have a lovely day sartre !!!!! :)

  21. move over atonement….

  22. Ooooh, do me, do me! Seriously, that was a pretty good distillation of preference from a list of favorite films. For me, it’s not so much that I have a hard time articulating what films I like, but that there are at least 5 or 6 distinct categories of film I like and I can find no common thread.

    I was only half-kidding, incidentally. You know what kind of films I like by now, right? So, tell me who I am ;-)

  23. Your approach to movies is more intellectual than Glimmer’s. That’s not to say you don’t like to have your emotional buttons pushed in the right way, but you like to be able to get your mind around a movie as well as your heart.

    You’re a cinema omnivore and your tastes are going to continue to expand as the years go by. You’ll voraciously move from genre to genre but you won’t be stuck with just one. Your non-movie friends already raise their eyebrows at some of the strange things you like, especially the things older than you are, but just wait until you’re waxing poetic about French cinema from the 30s or silent films or Japenese films from the 50s and 60s.

    There’s a hint of pride in your taste. You’re probably looked upon as “the movie girl” in certain circles and you like playing that role, but you’re careful to tend the impression that your tastes are pretty refined.

    Your tastes are pretty gender neutral though leaning towards masculine. I wouldn’t be surprised to find you spent many nights watching movies with your dad or perhaps an older brother when you were little.

    Finally, you’re a Coen fan so clearly you’re operating on a higher level of movie appreciation than your average person :)

    In short, you’re smart and cultured and you don’t care who knows it. You can also be a romantic sentimentalist as long as you don’t feel you’re being pandered to. Sometimes you maybe wish you could be less the former and more the latter, but you’d never sell out your intelligence.

    Have I said anything that sounds right?

  24. Wow, that’s quite amazing. Aside from the dad or older brother bit (I’m forever trying to drag my dad to movies but he no longer has the patience for them, and my brother is 5 years younger), it’s spot on. I have almost always been in rather masculine circles (being a physics geek and all), so that might explain that part.

    By the way, you dance around the word, but don’t worry, I won’t take (too much) offense if you just call me a snob. I’m afraid I am, in some regards.

    Mind if I copy/paste this into my blog? I’m curious what other readers might think ;-)

  25. Rats, I really thought I nailed the dad thing! :)

    Cut and paste away.

    And I can’t call you a snob because it would mean I’m a snob too. Our tastes are really shockingly similar as I think I’ve said before. If I was a dutch physics nerd…and a girl…I could be you almost!

    Anyway, snobbery to me is more (or is it less?) than just a heightened sense of taste, there’s also a narrowmindedness to it. You like too many different kinds of movies to be a snob. Snobs have to limit themselves because it offers more opportunity for the oh-so-important turning up of the nose.

  26. craig..maybe you should do a book about different types of movie fans/and what those movies mean to them.

    or how about a horscope for movies fans ???

    craig….the think you did based on your knowing some faves …is one the reasons why i wonder no reader ever does the ‘audience breakdown/profile thing.

    when they gor to a movie.hell i tried when i mentioned going to i’m not there.

    uh as a hermit these sort of thing interest me…

    but really pretty much no pro or non pro on the net seems to care. ha ha….

  27. ok here we go again….juno

    7:30 spell it as 7:30 showing/screening/freen screening…i oversleep got there ‘late’. late meaning i was in a bit after 7 pm. and still a longish line formed after me. people being dropped at the curb.dashing in line/ clutching their email/free pass things…

    yep the print your email things were in full effect. but i felt to….. to hold my email in my hand.but i mutple times checked my jacket pocket to say. ‘gosh it still there/awesome.ok another xxxx minutein line and maybe’ll get in…..ha ha. :)

    anyway almost directly in front me. the ‘buffer zone’ was uh something one person. spell it as one…

    there was the rarest of inter racial couples in line. hm maybe even rarer since i……in the south.

    yep a black female with a white male. and going by their interaction.i’m going with they were more than just friends.

    now,and nope i wasn’t bothered by this…and it’s cool with me.everytime.but it did ad the the ‘flavor’ of the juno screening…

    almost as much as i swear this is true a pregnant female walked past in a cut in line to get to the other side directly in front of me sort of way. :)

    anyway when i got inside it rather much so i’m forced to yes the second row to find a seat that i know that’s not taken….

    so my lateness and crappy seats me i can’t audience observe as much as i like.

    seriously since i trying/forcing myself to hit the cinema(and craig you likley know the main thing ‘pushing’ me) my consistent bit of fun has been trying to get a vibe on what the audince is like for that showing/any tidbits from the crowd that stand out for me erc. and maybe a fake audince breakdown/profile whatever….

    but this mostly need me getting there early and going to last row. but it wasn’t so today…

    so i’m in row two. and i’ve mentioned the eldery couple that was sitting to the left on me.(nope i have no problem with older people/either) and hey they were there first.

    but soon very soon after i’m seated it’s the arrival of the hipster hetero couple. and as the gods or whomever would have it(and thanks to the gods or whomever)the female part of the couple sits beside me.

    weird because at ‘i’m not there’ there were several seats bewteen me and the ‘hot’ female(who aslo had a boyfriend or whatever beside her)

    ok maybe neither of these females were ‘hot’ but i’m a loser geek that probably has no standards. roll on geek… :)

    anyway she sitting beside me and she pretty much goes into…..yes cellphone mood…..

    the screening was at the angelika and since they were doing they’re answer these questions quiz stuff instead of doing trailers/previews for other movies people were talking lots anyway. so no one complained or cared when filed in the space with some cellphone action.

    unfornately *for me*.she didn’t do any phone sex stuff.

    but what did she talk about ??? south by southwest music festival, djing(seems she’s dj???) not getting paid well when she does clubs.some talk about where you can get a cd pressed.wanting to find a new apartment.(yes i totally listened. *thank you* )

    and my favorite. i guess she was asked by whomever what the movie ‘juno’ was about. and she said something similiar to ‘it’s a free movie and it’s got the guy from superbad in it.’

    and this is the audience going to put ‘juno’ over nation wide. so smile fox…. ;)


    anyway and after the cell call ended she prattled /talk to huh the guy that was with her.

    for minutes well at least 3/4 and the guy didn’t say anything.nope i have zero idea what his voice sounds like.

    oh,well i’ve always thought females would like me more if they didn’t have to speak to me/i didn’t talk…and if i was someone see there you go… ;)

    anyway second row and late means i couldn’t but the eye on the crowd until i was leaving the theatre.

    and hey much more racailly diverse crowd than when i caught the fox the darjeeling limited screening.

    hitting all age want people that look like they were in their 40’s/50’s they were there wanted to see pre-teens/teens. they were there.

    wanted to see pre-teens/teens there with parents.they were there too.very *i’m an adult* type people in late 20’s early 30’s they were also on hand.(and who are these people ??) and yeah i could go on…break it down yeah…

    all in all it seems a recipe tha could crossover massively(repeat the crowed loved it)

    but you know a craig/now a message that almost from the heart. ha ha…

    something for everyone.usually means nothing to love for me.

    being a geek is hard it’s screwed.and you can never count on a hipster to ‘represent’ you. so no no to juno.

    anyway craig i really wanted to like juno. i mean i read the things linked on the immortal awards daily. you intereviews with diablo or whatever her name is and it seemed cool/sh seemd cool..i was interested. and hey she’s even pretty too…..

    but i was fooled again……juno didn’t work for me. no way.

    and i remeber most of the stuff i like(that’s meant the most to me art wise) is by ugly people that no one thinks is smart or sexy. so there you go..

    ‘following my heart’….

    ‘juno’ i guess this is like all those ‘hip’ radio/big indie/alternative bands that referenced ‘important’ bands from the past.but you know it’s normal rock heart at their core.and the core is surrounded by a bunch of normalcy too.

    call it ‘indie’/’alternative’. and everyone else labels it as such and get to be ‘cool’ without running into things even slighly different.and is that ‘juno’ ???

    now what message is a loser such as myself supposed to get from that ??? uh hmm i supposed to embrace that ????

  28. sometimes ny bad spelling/hurriness/no punction skills gets me in trouble. met to put i *wasn’t* bothred by the black female/white male couple…

    oh well my writting is full of mistakes as always.

    and hey if ever checked everything. i’d never write anything. :)

    so i’m not going to check anymore…. :)

    [Editor’s Note: I took the liberty of correcting your comment even though I knew what you meant, ’cause that’s how I roll.]

  29. thanks for the editing craig !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :)

  30. Not that I pay any attention to opening weekend box office numbers, but it looks like Juno did really well for itself in limited release. We could have another Little Miss Sunshine on our hands.

  31. anyway did you see that your obession…no country barely missed the top five for the weekend thing.

    that would have been alot a free press for the film.

    juno vs little miss sunshine.

    juno will make it money faster than little miss sunshine.lms was out for months before it entered the hey what’s that film phase from the mainstream kids.

    i think the masses already sort of know about juno.amd alot of them very much know of it. don’t think lms had that level of recognition(sp?) with the general public until it was out for xxxx whatever number of months…..

    and at least little miss sunshine had grandpa doing cocaine.what in juno gets close to that ????

    and not that i view lms as some sort of ‘heyday’ but just last year things didn’t seem as lame…

    viva la geek…..

  32. More importantly is how little No Country dropped off from last week. This is good news. It sounds like people are finding it.

  33. during a couple of the weekdays last week it was four for the day. the highest it’s been listed at box office prophets.

    and hmm guess it’s doing well with the award stuff sunday may tranlate to another smallish drop at the worse when the next weekend hits ???(but i wonder will those ‘smaller’ awards things the last few days be on the radar to those outside the big media capitals/the net mavens ???)

    no country will be the bros biggest box office film in few weeks ????

  34. When I saw the film, which I loved, I laughed so hard, not at the film, but the fact that 5 people fell asleep. I didn’t feel the length, but then again, not everyone is a serious moviegoer (if I can call myself that). I thought the supporting actors out shone the leads, the score was brilliant, the cinematography breathtaking and the film over to soon.

  35. I finally got to read your review of ATONEMENT. Very elegant piece indeed, so well written. I hope your position on the film has improved.

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