Atonement (2007)

Genres - Romance  |   Sub-Genres - Romantic Epic, Period Film  |   Release Date - Dec 7, 2007 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 123 min.  |   Countries - France , United Kingdom , United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Derek Armstrong

Joe Wright's Atonement is impressive for what it isn't as much as for what it is. For starters, it's not a straightforward period piece, though the presence of James McAvoy and Keira Knightley (alongside her Pride & Prejudice director) might suggest otherwise. Neither is it the least bit slow, with Wright's cinematic choices invigorating the narrative at every turn. It should be no surprise, then, that Atonement's marriage of lofty war-time subject matter and eye-opening technique earned it seven Oscar nominations. Viewers will find their eyes opened plenty wide -- even before noticing any technique -- by Atonement's raw sexuality, which immediately removes it from the tea-and-crumpet politeness of your average costume drama. McAvoy's Robbie has several smoldering encounters with Knightley's Cecelia, one involving a letter so lurid, it's downright smut. Crucially, these episodes are misinterpreted -- perhaps willfully -- by Cecilia's sister Briony (the Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan). Wright orchestrates these passages so they appear to be merely the whimsical misunderstandings of any good farce. But as the levity peels away toward sinister motivations and irrevocable repercussions, Atonement slouches into the scourges of war, leaving those parlors behind forever. Wright accomplishes all this through a memorable bag of tricks, including a repeating narrative structure that shows events interpreted from several perspectives; an indelible Oscar-winning score by Dario Marianelli, which utilizes typewriter keystrokes as percussion instruments; and one of the most ambitious uninterrupted shots ever recorded on film (by DP Seamus Mcgarvey). Perhaps second only to Children of Men's famous tracking shot in terms of modern achievement, this five-and-a-half-minute continuous take is a truly jaw-dropping sequence along the beach at Dunkirk, starting with the execution of several horses, then looping through all manner of minutely choreographed chaos without missing a beat. If there's any complaint here, it's that some viewers may feel shaken by the film's abrupt compartmentalization of its chronology, most notably during the final ten minutes, which have a somewhat spell-breaking effect. But most viewers should find themselves utterly enveloped by a movie far different than they may have prejudged.