U.S. Release Date: December 7, 2007
Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Christopher Hampton
Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Composer: Dario Marianelli
Cast: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn, Juno Temple, Benedict Cumberbatch
Running Time: 2 hours and 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (disturbing war images, language and some sexuality)

Sin-Themed Drama Is Overwrought
by Scott Holleran

Uneven but interesting, Atonement recalls a Merchant/Ivory production; British, slow and overdressed. Aided by a visual flourish and an intellectual hook late in the process, it nearly compensates for the flaws.

The character to watch is named Briony and three sky-blue-eyed actresses portray her at various stages of life. Demonic tween Briony, played by vowel-laden Saoirse Ronan, commits the evil act that defines the movie. Contrite Briony (Romola Garai) commences the apologia, and old woman Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) caps the character off with a twist. Though each actress is good, Garai—who also played a nurse in Rory O'Shea Was Here opposite Atonement co-star James McAvoy—is best in the role. She keeps the laborious showcase from falling asleep.

Briony is a bad seed, which is the trouble with this main character. The little guttersnipe would be the personification of original sin if there were such a thing as being born evil, but Briony's motive, once revealed, is contrived; it is planted there to make the movie happen.

So is nearly everything else, which is terribly irritating for the first 30 minutes or so. Briony's sister, Cecilia (hysterical Keira Knightley, chewing or nibbling on everything but the tablecloth before piping down) tromps around the estate grounds in wet undergarments, sliding up to servant Robbie (McAvoy in another strong performance). When younger Briony, on the brink of puberty and a tad too old for dollhouses, spies the couple sealing the deal, betrayal begins.

That much is clear, though one never knows whether it's four years later, six months earlier or five minutes past the hour, since the latest trend of chaotic chronology afflicts Atonement, too. It doesn't really matter. Most of this tortured tale is neither hard to follow nor forecast. There are times when the story is involving.

Crafted around a Corona typewriter, which lingers in sight and sound, Atonement revolves around Cecilia and Robbie as if they're dancing inside a snow globe held by the hands of aspiring writer Briony, who gingerly enters and exits the tragic love story.

The rest of the cast is as neatly arranged as the opening shot's marching toy animals. A mother with chronic migraines promptly dubs precocious Briony's play "stupendous," a leering brother fixes his gaze on a sister, frizzy-haired cousin Lola lives up to her name and a seemingly friendly stranger are each affected by one child's act of profound (and implausible) injustice. A pair of pudgy twins is the only two kids in the parentless playground with any sense; they flee the compound as fast as they can.

Scenes of Cecilia and Robbie making love with sweet lips and token resistance accentuate the tour de force buildup. Those images supply Atonement with a sense of purpose before Briony supersedes their saga. The lovers' bond nets the best lines in a movie based on a novel. They speak of love without shame and the clarity of passion. One wants them to unite.

But one is routinely submerged in unnecessary shots, including a frog close-up after a British soldier tells French jokes. Here, Atonement slips into World War 2—the mass evacuation at Dunkirk to be exact, though that's unclear—where Robbie witnesses horror. The ghoulish, almost surreal Dunkirk sequence prefaces a moving encounter behind a scarlet curtain.

Atonement's immersion in war dramatizes that man's life is finite, not automatic; it can be made—and it can be wiped out. Like a Shakespearean drama, the point is that a single act—a tragic flaw—can cause real, permanent damage.

Not much new there, even with a last-minute switch in perspective that makes a subtle and thoughtful point about the role of art. The salient notion that life is not eternal—and love is not all you need—comes through intact and it's especially relevant in a world at war. But arriving there without mapping it, like atoning for unearned guilt, is less than satisfying.

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