(01/04/2008) I rarely do this, but I felt compelled after a second viewing of Atonement to admit where I may have been off base with my initial review. I judged the characters rather harshly, but on second look felt them worthy of forgiveness from the audience. I was especially unfair to Keira Knightley. Her emaciated appearance adds a bizarre element to her character in that it could be viewed as a physical manifestation of her character’s lovesick nature. She loses herself and her body in this role much like Christian Bale did in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn. There were also certain nuances in her body language and performance I witnessed the second time around that made the film richer and more emotionally complex. Joe Wright’s camera adores Keira, lingers on her unique features, and makes her a far better actress. I also found the ending, which at first look seemed all too clever, to be a fitting conclusion and mirror of the film’s greater themes that honored the source material from Ian McEwan. Atonement is a brilliant and haunting piece of work. I still can’t get the Dunkirk tracking shot out of my mind. The rest of my original review appears below unabridged. –DHS
Suite Britianna, 10 December 2007
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA
A budding young writer named Briony witnesses an innocent act she doesn’t fully understand between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and long-time family servant Robbie (James McAvoy) one restless summer day on her family’s lavish country estate in 1935 England that leads to scandal in Joe Wright’s dreadfully sumptuous adaptation of Ian McEwan’s international best-selling novel, “Atonement.” Four years later, all three characters try to find their own personal sense of peace or redemption during WWII.
This brief synopsis does nothing to explain the intricate complexities of the plot and actions that take place. Although Keira Knightley’s performance is slightly off-putting due to the fact she appears like she just escaped from a concentration camp (surely young British socialites did not look like this in the 1930’s), the stunning cast shows full range here racing through curious emotions: spite, lust, recklessness, and selfish wanton abandon. The facial expressions, especially from the children in the early scenes on the estate, are priceless. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic as they are often vain, self-absorbed, and quite silly in their drama, but they are fascinating to watch. The first third of the film is played like a “Masterpiece Theater” production of “The Great Gatsby” as seen through the eyes of Nancy Drew.
However, what makes “Atonement” soar is the impeccable direction of Joe Wright. He makes the most audacious coming-of-age as an auteur since Anthony Minghella delivered “The English Patient” back in 1996. Wright displays a near Kubrickian mastery of sound effects (notice the strikes of the typewriter keys) that transition from scene to scene and often bleed into the amazing score from Dario Marianelli. Wright also crafts a finely textured mise-en-scene that visually translates McEwan’s richly composed story onto the screen with near note perfect fashion. Nothing can really prepare you for how well directed this film is until you see it, and the scene of the three soldiers arriving on the beach at the Dunkirk evacuation is one of the greatest stand alone unedited panning long shots ever captured on film. It left me gasping.
That scene leads to the heart of the film. The often clichéd romance at the core is trumped by Wright’s depiction of Robbie, a single man forlorn and obsessed, his dizzying inner turmoil reflected against the grand canvas of a chaotic world at war. Likewise, Briony’s redemption comes not in the too-clever conclusion at the end of the film, but in the intimate and symbolic confessional at the bedside of a dying French soldier. These moments leave lasting impressions, and left me imagining that if Joe Wright were to ever adapt Irene Nemiorovsky’s “Suite Francaise” onto the silver screen, he would knock it so far out of the park it would leave “Gone With Wind” spinning in its gilded Hollywood grave.
Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database: