Movie Information

The Story: A young girl's lie sets the stage for this period drama about doomed lovers. The Lowdown: A beautifully crafted, intelligent film that somehow misses being as emotionally powerful as it needs to be to cross the line into greatness.
Genre: Drama
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave
Rated: R

When Joe Wright’s sophomore effort Atonement hit Cannes, words like “masterpiece” and phrases like “an instant classic” (what does that mean? add water and stir?) came tumbling forth like oranges from a faulty sack. Being something of a skeptic—and always wary of high-toned dramas that smack of Merchant-Ivory or Masterpiece Theatre—I was prepared to find myself at odds with the headlong rush to propel the film into the pantheon of great movies, regardless of how much I liked Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005). Seeing the film back in December and again today, I’m completely bogged in a mixture of great admiration and complete indifference.

Oh, there’s no denying that Atonement is a good film—even a good film with great moments in it—and if it picks up the Oscar this year, I won’t have to be restrained from throwing a heavy object at the television. It’s an intelligent film, and would be a perfectly reasonable choice—especially compared to some of Oscar’s more embarrassing choices.

The story is solid. It follows one of those class-conscious romances between a rich young woman, Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), and an educated but poor young man, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), whose romance is brought crashing down thanks to the not entirely deliberate machination of Cecilia’s young sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan, I Could Never Be Your Woman). Briony partly misunderstands an encounter between the two, but it’s her own apparent crush on Robbie—and her shock at reading a letter Robbie accidentally sent that contains a rather coarse word for female genitalia (is America ready to come to terms with the “c” word?)—that prompts her to tell the lie (a lie she obviously wants to be the truth) that ruins not just the lives of the lovers, but Briony’s own life as well.

The acting is fine, and in the case of Vanessa Redgrave maybe more than that. I could spend this entire review enthusing over Wright’s endlessly creative direction—and throw in extra kudos for the movie’s amazing single long take in the Dunkirk scene. The segment where Robbie types the fateful letter that propels the plot, while Wright connects him with Cecilia as she prepares for a party through intercutting, is stunning filmmaking in itself. I love the boldness of the approach in terms of risking silliness by going for the power of a highly stylized reality.

I admire the structure of the story, which is occasionally daring, but never seems grafted on to draw attention to the cleverness. I was often surprised by the turns in the story and the way they were presented—though perhaps not as much as I was meant to be by the film’s biggest revelation. In short, I was thoroughly entertained for two hours, and on that score, I can’t fault the movie in the slightest.

So why am I holding back on the unstinting praise? For the simple reason that I never really cared much one way or the other about what happened to any of these characters. I was interested, but detached. I felt like I was watching a pathological study of the effects of an unpleasant young girl’s lie as it destroys three lives.

I almost think the cleverness of the filmmaking process gets in the way of the emotional drama. At the key moment when Robbie is wrenched away from Cecilia on the spurious charge, rather than being caught up in the drama, I was admiring the way Wright had chosen to have the scene lit by the red taillights from the police car.

Then too, some of the early scenes get perilously close to the comedic. The scene where Briony stumbles upon Robbie and Cecilia having upright sex in the library and the pair just freeze in mid-ardor like maybe she won’t notice is close to a racy comedy of manners. Had it added Robbie pretending to look for a book (“Now where did I put that Dickens?”) it would have toppled over into outright farce. That I was even thinking this tells me it wasn’t working for me the way it was intended.

But bear in mind, others have had a much more profound reaction to the film, and even without that, I would still recommend Atonement for all the things it does right. It’s an intelligent, beautifully crafted entertainment—even if I’m not sold on its actual greatness. Rated R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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16 thoughts on “Atonement

  1. Steve

    I read the book because I had heard such wonderful things about the movie, and I like to read the book first. Having done so, I have to say I am not sure I would see the movie. It is a very grim book for a very long time, with very little payoff in the end. Not a fun time. I am frankly tired of being sold what I privately call “the beautiful death of kittens” (like “The Hours” for example) as art. Give me another Amelie.

    Also, I can’t help but think, have the movies not yet exhausted every possible permutation WWII? I know it was a significant world event and all, but it seems to be the background and/or subject of SO many movies already.

  2. Ken Hanke

    THE HOURS, for me, is worth the grimness, but this ultimately isn’t quite. It also didn’t have the same impact on me that THE HOURS did — and which THE HOURS still did last time I revisited it (which was right after I sat through EVENING, which struck me as an HOURS wanna-be). Not that I have anything against AMELIE (even if I thought A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT was actually a better movie), but I wouldn’t want a steady diet of it.

    Can’t say that I think WWII is necessarily played out dramatically. It strikes me that it’s a little hard to write it off as simply a significant world event, if only because of the enormity of it and how it left the world changed. Of course, this is about as much a movie about WWII as GONE WITH THE WIND is about the Civil War, which is to say it’s a romance set against a WWII backdrop. That said, I don’t know of all that many movies that have dealt with the specifics depicted here.

  3. Steve

    Perhaps the movie did not linger as lovingly on the eternal grim withdrawal of Allied troops from France, as the book did. A forced march, parched with thirst, bombs blowing up, a throbbing wound, blistered feet, people being blown to bits etc etc etc; and once again without the payoff of getting to see Robbie actually leave – to feel some of his relief. He just magically appears back in England later in the book, when he’s needed. If I want to read about or watch that, I’ll do the Rings Trilogy again. Once again, important, I know, especially in light of world events, but I don’t particularly want to spend $15 and a Friday night watching it.

  4. Ken Hanke

    “without the payoff of getting to see Robbie actually leave – to feel some of his relief. He just magically appears back in England later in the book, when he’s needed.”

    Not having read the book, I’m only guessing that that’s for the same reason — which it wouldn’t be fair to people who plan to read it or see the film to discuss here — it’s handled that way in the movie. I think I’d find it more forced on the page than in a movie.

    “but I don’t particularly want to spend $15 and a Friday night watching it.”

    I can understand that. There are certainly genres I don’t particularly care for and tend to avoid if given the chance. I don’t always have that chance, though. You don’t actually think I sat through the new VeggieTales movie because I wanted to, do you?

  5. I saw this over the weekend, and spent the first hour-plus wondering how many more beautifully filmed cliches of romantic drama they were planning on cramming into the narrative.

    In fact, I almost lost all respect for the film during the flashback scene in London, where the ill-fated lovers are waiting for a double-decker bus and saying painfully melodramatic dialogue like “Oh, Robbie!” and “Oh, Cecilia!” with angst-ridden looks of loss on their faces. It just seemed like hack screenwriting.

    But, once the film played out its hand at the end, I decided that this may have been an intentional stylistic element, referring to Briony’s apologetic version of the events (or non-events, I guess).

    The opening 30 minutes of the film was good, the long follow shot in Dunkirk was brilliant and the reveal at the end made the film for me. The rest was wonderfully photographed, but, like Ken, I can’t say I cared much about the characters or the plot.

  6. Ken Hanke

    And for a movie obviously intending to make you dive for the Kleenex, that seems a pretty significant drawback.

  7. Steve

    In the book, the characters at the bus knew they were about to be separated, but were choked by the familiarity of correspondence (when he was in prison), and their wild longing across distance. There was no way the actual meeting could live up to their dreams of what it would be. The were in panic because their time had run out without their bond being suitably renewed. Add the British reserve to that, and it makes for strangled dialog. In the book it was poignant, but it would be damnably hard to portray on the screen. Although personally I thought “Remains of the Day” did it beautifully, it’s a difficult thing to pull off, which is why I guess so few movies are able to do it.

  8. Steve: With the amount of posts you are making, you should really consider signing up for an Xpress account. It’s a lot easier than typing in that captcha every time.

    Hanke: I know, but I’d still be surprised if there wasn’t a gold statue in [i]Atonement[/i]’s future.

    I say this because, even with the overwhelmingly melodramatic style that dominates much of the middle part of the film, my wife still totally fell for it. (She loved the book, so I doubt she was seeing the film as a stand-alone work.) But, even she had a little groan at the bus scene.

  9. Ken Hanke

    “Hanke: I know, but I’d still be surprised if there wasn’t a gold statue in Atonement‘s future.”

    Oh, I totally agree, and as I said, it wouldn’t be an embarassing choice — and that’s not something I can say about every Best Picture winner (yes, I am thinking of MILLION DOLLAR BABY for starters).

  10. Crash sucked

    Speaking of bad choices for best picture, did anyone else on the planet think that Crash totally sucked?

  11. Ken Hanke

    It was a horrible choice for best picture, yes. I didn’t think it “totally sucked” on a single viewing. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by it — in part because it struck me as so much better than MILLION DOLLAR BABY, which Paul Haggis also wrote. A second look, however, pretty much undid it for me — and, God knows, Haggis has gone on to write and sometimes direct some pretty heavy-handed fare in exactly the same key. What’s particularly annoying about so much of his work is that he takes a single topic that we’re all pretty familiar with — in the case of CRASH, racism — and then spends 2 hours telling us it’s bad like this is some discovery he’s just made.

  12. Bob Voorhees

    Not one of the best films of ’07. Surely you’re joking! I “cared” for Robbie deeply, as I’m certain McEwan did/does. He is as honorable and decent a character as I’ve seen in recent flicks. And nowhere, not in the review or responses, do I see any meditation on the cenral theme of the book/movie, the relationship between reality and fiction and the relationship between the author and his/her characters — both so poignantly expressed by Redgrave in the end.

  13. [b]Bob Voorhees:[/b] That element, which comes in as the twist ending to the story, was interesting. It prevented me from hating the film, in fact. But, apart from some funny moments in the beginning, the overall story was just far too cliche and melodramatic for me to take seriously, and the characters in the film were just too flat for me to like.

  14. Ken Hanke

    “Not one of the best films of ‘07. Surely you’re joking! I ‘cared’ for Robbie deeply, as I’m certain McEwan did/does.”

    This is where an insurmountable aspect of subjectivity comes into play. The key is that you did indeed care about the character. Since something — whatever it was — didn’t work about Robbie (or anybody else, for that matter) as a person, it kept the film from having the kind of impact it ought to have had.

    “And nowhere, not in the review or responses, do I see any meditation on the cenral theme of the book/movie, the relationship between reality and fiction and the relationship between the author and his/her characters—both so poignantly expressed by Redgrave in the end.”

    Is there much to actually discuss about it? I mean it’s laid out pretty straightforwardly and doesn’t rely on how you read the film. Also, it’s hard to discuss (certainly in the review) because it gives too much away. In some ways, I think it almost overbalances the film because it tackles so much in being about the reality/fiction aspect and the author/character one. The idea of expiating your sins through your art is interesting and even poignant (as you say) and it definitely raises the film a few notches above the realm of romance/drama.

    Since the film is still playing, let me preface the next bit with, yes, the old SPOILER WARNING:


    While it doesn’t bother me, the ending does have a negative impact on a lot of people, because it pulls the rug out from under you. In that regard it reminded me of the last part of Welles’ “F” FOR FAKE where we’ve been following a story — a supposedly true story — only to have Welles come in and tell you that “for the last 15 minutes I’ve been lying my head off.” It’s also not dissimilar to the play being rehearsed at the end of Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL with the idea of making right in art that which we couldn’t make right in life. It didn’t exactly surprise me because I figured the film was leading us down the garden path as soon as Robbie told his comrade that he wouldn’t hear another peep out of him. (The trailer folks, being unable to resist an action scene, did the film no favors in showing the flooding tube station, letting you in on the fact that something was amiss when the movie made its leap forward in time and we hadn’t seen this yet.) The intellectualization of the story in this manner poses a tricky problem because it makes you shift gears very quickly and pulls you out of the story you have been watching. (I think it works better in a more playful movie like “F” FOR FAKE or ANNIE HALL, neither of which are presented in an otherwise realistic manner to start with.) For me, it has the additional problem of the fact/fantasy question taking precedence over the whole concept of organic characters — ones that have a life “apart” from the writer and seem to be following their own paths more than being a wholly conscious one laid down by the author. In a way, I think that’s part of what doesn’t entirely work for me, because that’s much like my sense that the film itself is almost too well made for its own good, and that I’m admiring it more than feeling it.


    In any case, Bob, it’s nice to see you on here!

  15. Bill

    I just read your comment about “Crash,” and I had EXACTLY the reaction to it that you did, like I was being preached to by someone who discovered the evils of racism. Then, I went to school the next day (I taught art at a univ.) and I learned that my students were excited about Crash, almost to the point of being transformed. I would have thought they had heard about racism by the time they were college jrs. and srs., but apparently they hadn’t internalized the message, at least not viscerally. That experience still didn’t change my reaction to Crash – from my perspective it was trivial and melodramatic and I agree it was a rotten choice for “best picture” – but it did change the way I finally evaluated it. It apparently had some redeeming qualities (outside conideration as a work of art) for younger (mostly white) people who never lived through segregation, and for whom the topic of racism seldom got raised. Maybe Haggis just learned about it and decided to share his enlightenment with the world.

  16. Ken Hanke

    It apparently had some redeeming qualities (outside conideration as a work of art) for younger (mostly white) people who never lived through segregation, and for whom the topic of racism seldom got raised.

    That’s entirely possible, though I’m always surprised that such people exist. I mean, I didn’t live through either world war, but I certainly know about them. Nonetheless, you do present a wholly viable reason for granting the film some value, if not any actual merit in itself.

    Maybe Haggis just learned about it and decided to share his enlightenment with the world.

    “Wow! The real world isn’t anything like The Facts of Life!”

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