Film review by: Witney Seibold


There are two amazing scenes in Joe Wright’s new film “Atonement,” based on the novel by Ian McEwan:

            The first is the much-talked-about sex scene, in which Keira Knightley, barely wrapped in a drapey green dress, is entwined in a library ladder and taken roughly and sensuously by the smokey-eyed James McAvoy in a tuxedo. The lights are low, the passion hangs like moisture in the air, and the final release of love and sexual tension is almost like having an orgasm yourself. It’s romantic, daring, secretive, and very sexy.


            The second amazing scene is when McAvoy, now a WWII soldier, arrives at the beach in Germany where hundreds of bored, half-mad, and injured soldiers are awaiting the convoys to return them home. It is a single shot, and we see the fighting, the singing, the amusement park rides, the drunken merriment, and the horrid desperation all in one extended fluid movement. Joe Wright featured a similar shot in his 2005 version of “Pride & Prejudice,” where his camera snaked around a party, exposing what each of the characters were doing without any edits.


            The film looks beautiful, and skips brightly along, like the cheerful 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan), the sassy tweener heroine of the film’s first act (she is played by Romola Garai in the second act, and Vanessa Redgrave in the third). Despite being about a separated couple, betrayal, and all of the turgid romantic tropes of a typical 1940’s Hollywood romance, “Atonement” is swift, intriguing, and so well shot as to keep one closely drawn in throughout its entire 130-minute running time.


            The story (and I’ll have to be brief as to not reveal any of the major plot twists): Young Briony witnesses the growing sexual relationship between Robbie (McAvoy) and Cecilia (Knightley). When a crime is committed, Briony, thanks to her imflamed imagination, accuses the wrong man of the crime, and Robbie and Cecilia are separated. WWII breaks out, and they are sparated for a longer period. Will they ever reunite?


            Despite the amazing camerawork, excellent photography, and impeccable direction, “Atomement” still plays a lot like a pulp romance novel. All of the beats are predictable, all of the characters are familiar, and the final “twist,” if it can be called that, is rushed and feels almost arbitrary (even though it explains the film’s title). The tone shifts a little too dramatically between the film’s three acts: Act III feels rushed, and, from what I understand, was altered from the novel in such a way as to leave out some very important ambiguity: the film is a little too clear on what happened, where the book left the some of the final details up in the air. Act II is dark and violent and dirty as we follow the characters into the squalor of WWII. People have become uncharacteristically bitter and put-upon. The air becomes inappropriately smoggy, and the central romance becomes inappropriately epic. Act I, meanwhile – a drawing-room comedy of manners, complete with slamming doors and sunlit trips to the pond – was so bright and frothy and mannered that Bertie Wooster or Lord Emsworth, or any character from a P.G. Wodehouse novel, could have wandered in and not felt out-of-place.


            “Atonement” is a very good film, and surely worth one’s time. But perhaps it is a little, a little, too Hollywood to have the emotional heft it wants to have. By the time the titular atonement is explained, it feels like too little, too late.

             Joe Wright has such a knack for the mannered drawing-room comedy, though, that I would love to see him adapt a P.G. Wodehouse novel. If anyone can handle it, he can. Well, Aardman Animation would have a chance too.

Published in: on January 31, 2008 at 9:35 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Oh yes–that was some sex scene–the best in a long time. But that other thing–that piece that brought the artistic tension of the film to a crashing end–the beach scene–yeach! If only the editor had been a little more circumspect about what the film was about and where it was meant to go this film would have been as great as it should have been.

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