#178 Atonement

(2007, Joe Wright)

“I can’t escape from what I did or what it meant”

A few reviews ago, I berated directors from mainland Europe for making navel-gazing, self-obsessed, pretentious arthouse films. Guess it’s time to turn the spotlight on my home country for another unnecessary genre that needs to stop: period drama. I don’t know what it is, but British cinema just cannot get away from adaptations of novels set around nobility in the days before the breakup of the Empire. Even more bizarrely, Keira Knightley seems to be in every single one of them. Atonement is no exception.

Atonement is set in 1935, and 11-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), daughter of a wealthy English family, is jealous of the romantic attention her older sister Cecila (Knightley) gets from the servant’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy). After reading a sexually charged letter Robbie sent to Cecilia accidentally, Briony accuses Robbie of a serious crime, causing him to be jailed. The rest of the movie tracks the far-reaching implications this spiteful and childish act caused over the years.

Oh, I should also mention that a good chunk of this movie is during World War II as well, which is another genre of movie that filmmakers around the world need to stop making. As a genre that crops up numerous times on the Movies You Should See list, it becomes painfully obvious how overdone it is, and how repetitive the message of “the war was bad and you should feel bad” can get at times.

So does Atonement bring anything new to either the period drama or WW2 genres? Well, not really. The first part of the movie sticks very much to the same prim and proper rulebook of people never actually communicating with each other properly out of super-politeness. What’s more, there’s a lot of furtive glancing and people stuttering over their words, but nothing actually happens until Briony makes her accusations.

This part of the movie is basically the kind of movie comedian Eddie Izzard described here and as a result of that particular skit, it was hard to take the movie seriously at all. And when it wasn’t all stuttery and awkward, a bunch of really irritating children ran on screen squealing and shouting. Yes, that includes Briony herself, so when the de facto main character is annoying, it doesn’t bode well for the movie as a whole.

Then we move into World War II territory, and this is exactly where my general criticism of these movies comes into play. There’s an extended sequence where we pan over the beach at Dunkirk for an exceptionally long time as Robbie wanders around on a tour of death and disease. Soldiers are dying or suffering from shellshock, horses are being shot, medics are working round the clock to help the many injured and it’s all very harrowing.

Or it would be if we hadn’t seen sequences exactly like this is EVERY OTHER WW2 movie ever made. It’s hard to feel sympathy for the soldiers in WW2 movies when the movie world is so saturated with the same imagery to the point where viewers just become numb to it. Of course, the war was terrible and there was a great loss of life, but can we make films about something else for a change, please?

Things don’t improve much when we return to Briony, now older, largely because her new actress, Romola Garai, is so bland her entire performance is basically forgettable. That said, I did like the scene where she visits Cecila and apologises for what she did. It’s not often I give Keira Knightley credit for her acting, but she was pretty impressive here, as was McAvoy.

But the movie’s real high point was the last ten minutes, set in the modern day, where an older Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) talks about the novel she wrote about the whole thing. Redgrave is the best actor in the whole movie, and quite frankly there should have been more of her. Hell, I’d probably have liked the movie if it was just Redgrave narrating the events to an audience; her delivery was that powerful. It’s just a shame she’s relegated to these final scenes.

It’s also a shame that her scenes are all a major setup for a literary cliché, that the novel the movie is based on was the novel Briony was working on all along. Every time I’ve seen that plot device, I just roll my eyes in disdain because of how cheesy it is and how little it ever adds to the plot at large.

So, Atonement is the anti-Good Morning Vietnam then. While Vietnam was entertaining until the final meandering scenes, Atonement is a string of meandering scenes leading up to a fantastic final performance to round off the movie. With the exception of Vanessa Redgrave, Atonement is the dictionary definition of an average movie. It does nothing new and while it isn’t necessarily bad, it doesn’t stand out in any way.

Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Juno Temple & Benedict Cumberbatch
Written by Ian McEwan (novel) and Christopher Hampton
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner & Paul Webster
Music by Dario Marianelli
Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey
Edited by Paul Tothill

Favourite Scene: The end scene. Vanessa Redgrave should have narrated the entire movie!
Scene That Bugged Me: Teenage Briony comforts a dying French soldier. Has no connection to the overall narrative and raises the question of how these two seemingly know each other.

Watch it if: You really can’t get enough of Keira Knightley in period dramas
Avoid it if: You’ve had enough of Keira Knightley in period dramas


Posted on April 24, 2013, in 2000s, Drama, Romance, United Kingdom, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I personally enjoy the film, though I guess I do like Keira Knightly in period dramas so I fit the demographic, but there is one thing I feel you missed. Tallis doesn’t know the french boy, they’ve never met, she is simply there so he can die happy in his own delusion; afterall with his brain effectively hanging out (sadly made far less obvious by the 15 rating, though I guess the gore would have detracted from the scene too) he has little left but his illusions. This is a scene I personally enjoy because it makes Tallis’ teen actor feel warm and rounded in a way she doesn’t in any other scene in the movie, and also in a second viewing makes you wonder if her loosening the bandages brings about or expediates his death, though it is a little difficult to accept someone’s brain making and filling in such an elaborate story while it’s hanging out of his skull. The film is not without flaws, and it doesn’t tread new grounds, but I enjoyed it as a period war film that’s exceptionally well shot (apart from the ragdoll Keira in the flood which always seemed too comical for the reveal to me).

    • That scene just came across as awkward to me. While you felt it made Tallis’ teen actor feel rounded, it did little to endear me to her since I found her actress so flat most of the time, including that scene.

      Guess I’ve just never been a fan of period dramas, and I’m a little tired of war films these days, which really didn’t help!

      Thanks for the response!

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