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Atonement Has Plenty of Style But Little Substance

  • Christa Banister Contributing Writer
  • Updated Mar 13, 2008
<i>Atonement</i> Has Plenty of Style But Little Substance

DVD Release Date:  March 18, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  December 7, 2007 (limited)
Rating:  R (disturbing war images, language and sexuality)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  130 min.
Director:  Joe Wright
Actors:  James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Brenda Blethyn, Saoirse Ronan, Patrick Kennedy, Julia West

Don’t be fooled by the film’s trailer:  Atonement isn’t simply a story of star-crossed lovers torn apart by war and false accusations with a feel-good ending. Instead, it’s a dark, complex tale of lies, lust and the brutal effects of battle that goes on and on and on, and not in a good way like say, Gone with the Wind.

Directed by Joe Wright, the man behind the surprisingly delightful 2005 remake of Pride & Prejudice, the cinematography for Atonement is both sumptuous and satisfying. With the exception of the gorgeous English scenery and attractive lead actors, however, there’s little else about the flick that’s truly memorable, which to be honest, really surprised me.
Based on the bestselling novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement begins with an imaginative teenager with an unusual name, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan). While her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) spends the majority of her time languidly laying in the field or smoking a ciggy by the pool, Briony is plunking away at her typewriter. Clearly, writing is her passion, and Briony loves the praise she receives for her work, especially from her mother. But when she tries to rehearse her current play with a few houseguests, Briony quickly loses control of the situation as the would-be actors didn’t exactly feel her level of enthusiasm. In fact, they scoot as soon as they get an opportunity.

Frustrated about the houseguests’ less than cooperative natures, Briony is forced to find another way to pass the time. Armed with her overactive imagination, Briony starts spying on Cecilia and Robbie (James McAvoy) who Briony has always held a torch for.

As Briony peers out the window, she’s scandalized when she sees Cecilia strip down to her skivvies and dive into the water in the fountain. Then when Cecilia reappears, she’s soaking wet, which doesn’t actually leave much to the imagination. Since Cecilia is standing right next to Robbie (who has actually turned his view away, although Briony can’t see it), Briony pictures a scandalous scenario that’s not true to life.

In the next scene, the audience sees what actually happens, which sets the pace for a story that’s consistently somewhere between fantasy and reality as we view things from both perspectives—Briony’s and what actually happened.

Of course, Briony’s puppy love feelings for Robbie and the jealousy that results when she actually spots Cecilia and Robbie loudly making love in the study, is what fuels the fire for this morality tale. Without giving too much away, Briony’s response to the situation ends up getting Robbie in a whole lot of trouble later on and forever alters the course of his life. In essence, the audience is reminded again that honesty is always the best policy (did it really take two hours to say that?), a lesson that everyone in the film learns the hard way.

The problem with what could’ve been an intriguing premise—the consequences that come with selfishness and jumping to conclusions without any regard for the repercussions—is that there’s not much of an actual storyline. There’s plenty of gorgeous visuals and a moving score, but the plot is about as thin as Keira Knightley herself. Then to make matters even more confusing, the story suffers from a surplus of flashbacks that not only don’t advance the plot, but add nothing to the film’s takeaway value.

And then just when things almost get interesting with about 20 minutes left and you believe that all the wrongs are about to be righted, the story takes such an abrupt turn that it’s almost jolting. I mean, c’mon, I’m all for a flick that’s not predictable, but Atonement goes so over the top that I didn’t buy a word of it. Sort of makes me wonder if the book it was based on offered any more in terms of clarity.


  • Drugs/Alcohol:  There’s several scenes where social drinking is involved. The main characters also smoke cigarettes all throughout the movie.
  • Language/Profanity:  Multiple uses of the “F” word and assorted profanities throughout, including instances of the Lord’s name taken in vain.
  • Sex/Nudity:  While there isn’t any nudity, there’s an extended, fairly explicit sex scene between Robbie and Cecilia. Female anatomy is also referred to crudely on several occasions. A minor is raped, but nothing is shown. Cecilia is also pictured in very thin, skimpy lingerie after diving into a fountain.
  • Violence:  Since the movie takes place during World War II, there are an assortment of grisly war injuries that are shown up close, including a group of children who’ve been shot and are lined up on the ground.