Atonement Review
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Thirteen-year-old budding playwright Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) thinks she knows all there is to know about love. After all, she’s written all about love and its follies in her latest play. But when Briony accidentally sees a thing or two that she wasn’t meant to see—and that she definitely doesn’t understand—she changes the lives of her family members forever.

Atonement begins in a breathtakingly pastoral setting—one that’s reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel (which is fitting, since director Joe Wright also directed the 2005 film version of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice). The setting gives the whole film an elegant and poetic feel right from the start—but a couple of misunderstandings turn Atonement from a light, Austen-like romance into a heart-breaking drama.

During an evening with family and friends to celebrate a visit from the eldest Tallis, Leon (Patrick Kennedy), and his chocolatier friend, Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Tallis’s cousin, Lola (Juno Temple), is assaulted. Convinced that Robbie Turner (James McAvoy)—the housekeeper’s son and the love interest of Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley)—is to blame, Briony falsely accuses him.

Four years later, Robbie has been released from prison to join the army. And as Cecilia nurses wounded soldiers and waits for Robbie’s return from France, an older and wiser Briony (Romola Garai) begins to understand the consequences of her accusation.

Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement is a strikingly beautiful film. From the picturesque countryside in the first act to the sweeping views of war in the second act, it’s a work of art. And that art flows over into the rest of the film, too: the crisp yet poetic dialogue, the brilliant score, and the powerfully dramatic performances. McAvoy is outstanding as Robbie—and Knightley has a simple elegance that fits perfectly in the late-‘30s setting.

At the same time, however, Atonement isn’t without its flaws. Though the second act is striking in its portrayal of the war, it doesn’t really fit within the story. Wright may have spent a lot of money on his elaborate wartime sets, but the scenes in France are a bit overdone, and the film drags a bit in the middle. Had Wright cut back a bit on the second act and devoted more time to developing the characters—especially Cecilia and Robbie and their unknown past—the film would have been even more powerful. Instead, the love story isn’t fully developed, and it’s rather short-lived. The film then continues through a sometimes confusing timeline, skipping back and forth to show different characters’ perspectives. And while I’ll admit that the ending did still manage to draw a tear or two out of this bitter and cynical film critic, the startling conclusion is almost brushed over, weakening some of the effect. So while Atonement is still a moving—and stunning—film, it’s not quite the classic romantic drama that it could have been.

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