Review: Atonement (2007)

Atonement (2007)

Directed by: Joe Wright | 110 minutes | drama, romance, war | Actors: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave, Juno Temple, Alfie Allen, Michelle Duncan, Gina McKee, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, Nonso Anozie, Daniel Mays, Patrick Kennedy, Vivienne Gibbs, Thomas Rooke, Jack Harcourt, Ben Harcourt, Charlie von Simson, Felix von Simson, Richard Sutton, Paul Henderson, Richard Waller, Jamie Beamish, Robert Alan Bishop, Richard Glaves, Andrew Appleyard, John Flynn

With the British film ‘Atonement’ we have caught a real wolf in sheep’s clothing. On the surface, the film has all the hallmarks of an exciting mainstream production. The first part is set in an old English country house where a story unfolds about love, crime, misunderstanding and betrayal. The next episode, set partly in a French war zone and partly in bomb-ravaged London, suggests that we are dealing with a romantic war drama. If you add a number of established actor names to that, it seems clear what you can expect from this film; unless you know that ‘Atonement’ sticks strictly to the source material: Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name. As in most of McEwan’s work (“The Cement Garden,” “The Comfort of Strangers”), the underlying layers are much more important than the plot.

‘Atonement’ is a film that aims to say something about guilt, penance and authorship (especially the author’s imagination and willingness to testify). These themes ensure that what at first seems like a conventional drama is essentially an excuse to say some unpleasant things about the (writer) man and his shortcomings. It is also these themes that are responsible for the unconventional structure and chronology, and for the fact that the film is cerebral rather than compelling. Unfortunately, this has not resulted in a masterpiece. The many coincidences in the first part of the story appear to be easier to swallow on paper than on the silver screen. Also, the film is actually too short to give all the lines the attention they deserve.

Although ‘Atonement’ looks fine otherwise, the scenes in Dunkirk could have been a little less exuberant. The individual elements (singing male choir, executing horses, a Ferris wheel, horse riders in the bombed-out old streets) may be historically correct, but captured in a single sequence it looks rather exaggerated. Fortunately, there is sufficient visual beauty in return, while the acting is also perfectly fine. Especially the very young Saoirse Ronan is very strongly cast as the 13-year-old prepubescent Briony Tallis. The girl, who somewhat resembles a young version of Phyllis Logan, has a disturbingly ambiguous character with her precocious face. But James McAvoy and Keira Knightly also do well as Robbie and Cecilia. This makes ‘Atonement’, despite a few weak spots, still worthwhile. If only because film buffs who are not averse to a little cerebrality are not really spoiled these days. With this arthouse film disguised as a mainstream production, they too will get their money’s worth once again.

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