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Atonement is a sweeping epic that actually works a lot better before it becomes sweeping or an epic. It’s a melodrama about love torn asunder by a false accusation, an offense that will reverberate through the lives of all involved for a long, long time.

It all begins at a country manor where Keira Knightley’s Cecilia lounges in the garden and James McAvoy’s Robbie is the Oxford-educated gardener’s son. The two are long-time friends who grew apart at university but come back together one fateful day. Cecilia’s sister Briony, a precocious girl of about 12 played by Saoirse Ronan, is a budding writer who stumbles across certain glimpses of Cecilia and Robbie’s lustful relationship: a dirty letter, a teasing incident in a fountain, a tryst in the library. Briony’s imagination runs wild and she begins to think Robbie is a sex-crazed maniac. Later, when something horrific does happen, Briony misidentifies the perpetrator and Robbie is arrested.

I go into detail here because this part of the film, roughly the first third, is very good. In a long, sweeping epic it’s when the story stays focused on a country manor that it really works. Most of it is fairly undramatic, but the film ratchets up the tension by showing us multiple scenes from different perspectives. What looks sinister from Briony’s perspective looks flirtatious from Cecilia’s. The time-shifts and piercing score complement this very compelling segment.

Alas, as the scope expands the film loses its punch. Read the rest of this entry »

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A third of the way through Atonement, I was figuring out how I was going to make room for it in my top five. But as Robbie went, so went the movie. And instead of praising one of the year’s best movies, I’m here to try and figure out what went wrong. I’m not a fan at all of how the movie was broken into three distinct parts, jumping years into the future each time (as a side note, I’ll mention it later, but I felt There Will Be Blood suffered similarly). I appreciate how it gave a jarring feel to the movie, but those gains were more than offset by the storytelling problems it created.

“Jarring” is a good word to describe several aspects of the movie, it is some sort of motif, if you will. Not really sure anyone could watch the first ten minutes of the movie and see the rape of a girl in the future. Briony peeling back the bandages of that one soldier only to find a good chunk of his head missing. The jumps in time, as I mentioned. And the ending, especially. I haven’t read the book, and I’m going to assume the ending is the same there, but that doesn’t mean the filmmakers had to keep it. And (spoiler warning, as always) that Robbie and Cecilia both die, and we don’t find out after the fact, is incredibly jarring. That’s an incredibly unsatisfying ending, in my mind, in terms of how these movies usually end, but one that I thought suited the movie perfectly. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about that. Also, as a brief response to Brian, I didn’t have any problem buying the love between Robbie and Cecilia. Methinks Brian’s just not a romantic.

Part of me wonders if the reason I’m not higher on this movie is because I’m such a sucker for a love story or mystery set on a British manor, and thus bitter the movie had to move on to a broader scope. Still, the disjointed feel of the movie was a bold choice, but one that ultimately was a mistake. It makes the movie feel more distant. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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