Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn, Juno Temple, Patrick Kennedy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, Michelle Duncan, Gina McKee, Daniel Mays, Alfie Allen
Written by: Christopher Hampton, based on a novel by Ian McEwan
Directed by: Joe Wright
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality
Running Time: 123
Date: 08/28/2007
IMDB

Atonement (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Wright and Wrong

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on a novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement tells a complex story about a man, a woman, and the woman's little sister who comes between them. Working from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton (The Quiet American), director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) deftly handles the film's first half, set over a single summer day in 1930s England, weaving past and present events back and forth to create an illusion of disjointed time.

For example, in one scene Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) jumps into a fountain, and in the next she appears in her room, bone dry. But we soon deduce that the second scene actually occurs before the latter. This ploy works, and it serves to fracture the film's point of view, allowing the little sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) to believe what she thinks she sees.

The son of the housekeeper, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), is in love with Cecilia, and she's in love with him. Their romance is, of course, forbidden, but through a series of mistimed coincidences, Briony decides that he's a sex maniac and a seducer of young girls. He goes to prison and eventually joins the army to fight in World War II.

From there, however, Wright loses his course and begins focusing on the horrors of war instead of the soiled fates of these three characters. He includes a tour-de-force shot, a five-minute take of the Dunkirk evacuation, utilizing perhaps thousands of extras and hundreds of props, all moving back and forth, in front of and around the camera. It's dazzling, and it will no doubt please Academy voters, but why is it there? It pulls all the focus to Robbie, with none to spare for Briony or Cecilia.

The second half of the film has a few other tricks up its sleeve, each with the same middling effect. Likewise, the actress that plays the older Briony, Romola Garai, seems hamstrung by the effort of finding a cohesive line to her younger counterpart. Overall, Atonement is a mixed bag, but far better than Wright's muddled Pride & Prejudice (2005) and ultimately worth seeing.

DVD Details: The DVD from Universal/Focus comes with a Joe Wright commentary track (I wonder if he confesses to "showing off" during the Dunkirk sequence?), two featurettes and deleted scenes. The feature is presented with several optional language and subtitle tracks.

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