Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Out today - Atonement. (*******7/10)

Atonement is the story of love between a sock puppet and a stick figure. The sock puppet is played by James McEvoy, who has become the go-to guy when you need a young, attractive, possibly rough-around-the-edges but with a heart of gold guy to appear in a period piece. Keira Knightley plays the stick figure, the female love interest in this period piece, which tells a tale of a time when food did not exist, and what food there was, was kept away from Keira Knightley.

The film starts out in a familiar way, in that different people watching the same events perceive them differently. That difference in perception stems from the innate bias each character brings to the scene, and becomes a difference in truth as well. Specifically, a couple of scenes between McEvoy and Knightley that are observed by Knightley’s younger sister, played by Saoirse Ronan. Ronan is fantastic in the role that won her a nomination for best supporting actress at the Oscars this year. Her character, Briony Tallis, is actually played by three different actresses, including Vanessa Redgrave, who is terrific in her three minutes of screen time.

The first hour of the movie is fantastic, an hour that accentuates the distance between the characters by placing them all at great distances from each other in the country mansion in which they live and work. Briony Tallis intercepts a letter meant for her sister from McEvoy, and that begins a series of events that will destroy lives and crush romance. (By the way, this movie, and that letter, make the best use of the "c" word I have yet seen in a film.) The younger Tallis accuses McEvoy of a heinous act, one that we all know he did not commit. It remains unclear whether Briony knows, herself, that he didn’t, but we definitely know that she did not really see what she claims to have seen.

The second half of the movie becomes more conventional and boring in a period-piece sort of way, as McEvoy is released from prison directly into the army during World War II. There are some obligatory period-piece army scenes, and the lovers pine for each other from a distance as he gets evacuated from Dunkirk while she works as a nurse in a military hospital. This part of the movie (the second hour) sags immensely, and loses a lot of momentum. This part of Atonement could have been inserted in Becoming Jane, mid-way through, and no one would have blinked or realized it was a different movie. But the last three minutes redeem the movie almost entirely, as Vanessa Redgrave is magnificent as the older Briony, now a best-selling author, telling her tale and explaining the final result of her lie. Which the movie, with a running time of two hours and three minutes, is 51 percent excellent.

Atonement was nominated for best picture at the Oscars, and I think it was the least-deserving of the picks. Redgrave was more deserving of a best supporting actress nomination over Ronan, but Ronan is very good, and the new fresh face in Hollywood, so she will always get the nod over an elder Hollywood stateswoman. Atonement is good, but it is not Oscar-worthy. It’s just a well-done, well-written, well-acted period piece that will likely be forgotten in ten years. A far better choice for a nomination would have been either In The Valley Of Elah or Eastern Promises, two films that will likely have staying power and relevance far beyond what this one will manage.


  1. Atonement looked and felt a lot like Pride and Prejudice, impeccable setting, acting and dialogue. A bit depressing toward the end, but over all very well done.

    i wonder: Is Briony's vocabulary typical for British 13 year olds?

  2. I doubt it...our 13 year old does not have that kind of eloquence or vocabulary...but it certainly added to her character, this precocious child who wants to believe she is much older than she is, and yet her childlike instincts are not obvious even to her...