Atonement pivots around a letter that should never have been written, and I wouldn’t go nearly as far as saying that this movie shouldn’t have been made, but its existence seemed rather irrelevant. Having not read the Ian McEwan novel, I still felt the distinct sense that I was watching a film adaption of a very lyrical novel. Apart from one sequence, which I’ll get into later, I never felt invested in the movie; it lacked the epic qualities I’d expect of a period piece. Not all great stories make great movies, and Atonement is no exception.

There were certain aspects of the plot that, without the context of pages of descriptive exposition, fell apart. Most importantly, where was no foundation for the love between James McAvoy’s Robby Turner and Keira Knightley’s Cecilia Tallis? Apart from longing, flirtatious glances in opening scenes and their climactic rendezvous in the library, I never saw the underpinnings of a forbidden-love that could never be. In that light, Briny’s supposed “sin,” however tragic it was, didn’t have the emotional impact it probably should. I’d hope the novel offered some more depth in that department, as they are wont to do. I blame writer Christopher Hampton for those flaws, among others with the screenplay.

As with Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Atonement plays with time throughout the film. We see scenes once, then again from another perspective in a Rashomon-like style, and at other times we go forward then backward in time. It worked very well in the fountain scene — setting the foundation for Briony’s later lies — but raises confusion later, especially later in the film with the middle-aged Briony. And as for the “made-up” scene, the writing was intentionally stilted and awful, that my only criticism of that was how could a successful author (Vanessa Redgrave in this instance) write that poorly? If any of you actually read the novel, I’d be interested in hearing how that was written.

So as you can tell, Oscar-wise, I’d be pretty disappointed if Hampton scored a nomination, and equally disappointed (but not at all surprised) when Knightley and McAvoy are nominated. And, for a change, this has nothing to do with my pre-existing dislike for James McAvoy. I actually think he was good in this role…but neither he nor Knightley were leading roles. Maybe this is just a karmic retribution for Last King of Scotland, when Forest Whitaker was clearly in a supporting role but rode the Oscar machine to a Best Actor victory, and McAvoy was left in the dust (and rightly so.) Now, when he might even deserve recognition for a strong secondary performance, he’ll be marketed for leading actor and get lost in the Denzel/Clooney/Depp mishmosh. (Then again, he’d get trounced by Javier Bardem in supporting anyway.)

The supporting/leading confusion comes from the fact that the leading role is played by three different actresses (Saorise Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave). Ronan carries the first 45 minutes of the movie, and is well-deserved of a nomination, if not the statue itself. She brings a cohesion to the meandering plot and characters, and succeeds at presenting the psychological background necessary for her later lies. Garai is fine, although she’s more notable for the casting agent’s ability to find a grown up actress who looked like Ronan. Redgrave is barely in the film, and although her 10 minutes of screen time are nice, any nomination she gets belongs in the “Ellen Burstyn’s 14 Seconds” of the Emmy’s infamy.

Technically, however, I’d be pleased to see Seamus McGarvey and Dario Marinelli recognized in the cinematography and score categories, respectively. The long take (5 minutes!) at the beaches of Dunkirk was breathtaking, literally, and McGarvey deserves a nomination. It ranks up there with Children of Men‘s one-track car scene as some of my favorite cinematic sequences of recent memory. As for the score (I think I’ve taken it upon myself to comment on the score for every film), Marinelli brought the natural sounds of the typewriter, or nurses marching in one instance, into his composition, and it worked great.

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