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Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saiorse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn

Directed by: Joe Wright

Produced by: Paul Webster, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner

Written by: Christopher Hampton

Distributor: Focus Features


     Should one judge a film based on its overall effect, or should one take into consideration how said film makes one feel as one watches it? Such is the dilemma that I face in forming an opinion on Atonement, a strange motion picture that, for better or for worse, reaches a crescendo of near-mastery in its final minutes. The rest of the movie, however, proves rather troubling. Despite always impressing the viewer due to its stunning technical competency, Atonement can’t help but feel as though it’s three different pictures when one watches it. Each of its three acts take on radically different styles and tones from one another. But, seemingly out of nowhere, the film concludes with an ending so perfect that it is provided an unmistakable sense of unity, one that I suspect will play to its favor with each succeeding viewing. Still, whether or not this proves Atonement worthy of lavish praise, I’m not exactly sure. I know that I like the film—and that I will probably like it more the next time I see it—but I still question whether or not I should completely disregard the clunky instability that it seems to be plagued by upon first glance. In other words: does the fact that its finale explains all of the movie’s narrative cumbersomeness forgive said cumbersomeness?

     Even if Atonement is not the complex masterpiece that its final minutes seem to suggest, its finesse in certain areas is unmistakable. Most noticeably, the film is a visual wonder, with gorgeous sets constructed by Katie Spencer, detailed costumes designed by Jacqueline Durran, and wispy cinematography created by Seamus McGarvey. Providing the film an added punch is Dario Marianelli’s nuanced, experimental score, which imbues certain sequences with an unexpected sense of character-related drama. Also, for the viewer to not realize director Joe Wright’s talent in packaging individual sequences—even acknowledging that his attempts in translating Ian McEwan’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s ambitious novel to the big-screen may be flawed—would be a travesty. His notable skill in working with actors is very clear in Atonement, too. In leads Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, Wright evokes what may be the best performances of both young careers. Additionally, he captures deviously miraculous work out of child-actor Saoirse Ronan, whose meagerly-framed thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis is responsible for the entirety of the film’s grandiose central conflict.

     Given how much I admire the bulk of Atonement, I must concede that it would be foolish of me to harshly criticize the film even if it didn’t offer the sucker-punch of an ending that it does. Sometimes, I think that it is appropriate for a reviewer to recommend a picture based on individual merits rather than on its overall significance. Said merits can certainly be abundantly found in Wright’s film. Still, I would not count out the possibility that I return to this review and positively amend it upon seeing the film a second time. Once the viewer knows where Atonement is headed, its conflicted-feeling assembly may just come to make perfect sense.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.20.2007

Screened on: 12.8.2007 at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, CA.


Atonement is rated R and runs 122 minutes.

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