10 December 2007 | WriterDave
A budding young writer named Briony witnesses an innocent act she doesn't fully understand between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and long-time family servant Robbie (James McAvoy) one restless summer day on her family's lavish country estate in 1935 England that leads to scandal in Joe Wright's dreadfully sumptuous adaptation of Ian McEwan's international best-selling novel, "Atonement." Four years later, all three characters try to find their own personal sense of peace or redemption during WWII.
This brief synopsis does nothing to explain the intricate complexities of the plot and actions that take place. Although Keira Knightley's performance is slightly off-putting due to the fact she appears like she just escaped from a concentration camp (surely young British socialites did not look like this in the 1930's), the stunning cast shows full range here racing through curious emotions: spite, lust, recklessness, and selfish wanton abandon. The facial expressions, especially from the children in the early scenes on the estate, are priceless. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic as they are often vain, self-absorbed, and quite silly in their drama, but they are fascinating to watch. The first third of the film is played like a "Masterpiece Theater" production of "The Great Gatsby" as seen through the eyes of Nancy Drew.
However, what makes "Atonement" soar is the impeccable direction of Joe Wright. He makes the most audacious coming-of-age as an auteur since Anthony Minghella delivered "The English Patient" back in 1996. Wright displays a near Kubrickian mastery of sound effects (notice the strikes of the typewriter keys) that transition from scene to scene and often bleed into the amazing score from Dario Marianelli. Wright also crafts a finely textured mise-en-scene that visually translates McEwan's richly composed story onto the screen with near note perfect fashion. Nothing can really prepare you for how well directed this film is until you see it, and the scene of the three soldiers arriving on the beach at the Dunkirk evacuation is one of the greatest stand alone unedited panning long shots ever captured on film. It left me gasping.
That scene leads to the heart of the film. The often clichéd romance at the core is trumped by Wright's depiction of Robbie, a single man forlorn and obsessed, his dizzying inner turmoil reflected against the grand canvas of a chaotic world at war. Likewise, Briony's redemption comes not in the too-clever conclusion at the end of the film, but in the intimate and symbolic confessional at the bedside of a dying French soldier. These moments leave lasting impressions, and left me imagining that if Joe Wright were to ever adapt Irene Nemiorovsky's "Suite Francaise" onto the silver screen, he would knock it so far out of the park it would leave "Gone With Wind" spinning in its gilded Hollywood grave.