Atonement (UK/France; 130min.)

directed by: Joe Wright
starring: James McAvoy; Keira Knightley; Saoirse Ronan; Romola Garai; Vanessa Redgrave

Sarah says: "Let me begin by saying I have not read the book the film was based upon (although it's on my to be read list now) and I knew nothing about the film when I sat
down in the theater.

"The basic plot concerns two sisters in a wealthy British family in the mid-1930's. The elder sister, Cecilia, has just graduated from Cambridge University which she attended with Robbie, the son of their housekeeper. Despite his lower class, Robbie's education was paid for by Cecilia's father and he has been accepted to medical school. The younger sister, Brioni, is about 13 and fancies herself a writer. She's indulged by the family including her mother, (played by the always wonderful Harriet Walter). Peripheral characters include their older brother arrives with his creepily caddish friend, wonderfully played by Benedict Cumberpatch, and their young cousins who have been sent away from London while their parents go through a messy divorce.

"I don't feel like I can reveal too much of the plot here since the film relies on surprise and viewing a few scenes from multiple viewpoints; to describe the scenes would be to prejudice future viewers. Suffice to say that you may think you know where this film is
going but it had several surprises in store for me.

"The acting is uniformly strong. James McAvoy is now firmly entrenched on my 'I'll watch anything he does' list; he gives a marvelously open performance here. I nearly didn't see the film because it stars Keira Knightley, someone I would have hesitated to call an
actress before this film. No more--she does a wonderful job in ATONEMENT. Saoirse Ronan, who plays the younger sister in the 1930s is astonishingly good and Vanessa Redgrave, who is on screen for less than 10 minutes, is incredible. It's worth seeing this movie just to see her.

"This is an extremely cinematic film, particularly in the first 60 minutes. The viewer is extremely aware of the camera and it works. The cinematography is stunningly beautiful, even when the things being filmed are not. It also contains one of the most
erotic sex scenes in my recent memory, although both the participants remain fully clothed. The score is superb. What holds all these pieces together is the direction by Joe Wright. It is almost unbelievable that this is only his second feature film--if he
doesn't get the Oscar there is no justice (and, as we all know, there frequently is no justice at the Oscars!).

"Like almost every modern movie made, I believe you could cut 30 minutes out of the middle of this film--there is a series of gorgeous looking shots while one character is on a journey that could be sacrificed without impacting the story (but I'm glad I saw them nonetheless). The celebrated four minute tracking shot in the middle of the movie is impressive but I found it to be a bit self congratulatory on the director's part--still, stunning to watch.

"To sum up, you may think you're going to get Merchant Ivory lite when you sit down in the theater, but you'll come away with so much more. I'd highly recommend folks see this film."

Thom says: "While I definitely would like to see this again for a final judgement as of right now ATONEMENT is my #1 film for 2007. I saw it at TIFF & was absolutely knocked out. Joe Wright had also directed the superb recent adaptation of PRIDE & PREJUDICE & considering that was his 1st feature film, to find his promise so brilliantly fulfilled was a great thrill. I too have added James McAvoy to my must-see list because of this film. His character is a far cry from the faun in THE LION, THE WITCH, & THE WARDROBE!
Jason says: "ATONEMENT is a prestige picture with a little bit of everything - class as a barrier to romance, exquisite period detail, scenes of war that are awe-inspiringly horrible, beautiful photography, and narrative cleverness. A bit too much of the latter, actually; it threatens to make the film's emotional payoff little more than an intellectual exercise.

"In our opening act, we meet the residents and guests at the Tallis country estate. Thirteen-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a serious child, always working at her typewriter, today working on a play to be put on at the party older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is throwing for their returning brother. Her cast will be visiting cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and her twin brothers Pierrot and Jackson (Felix and Charlie von Simson). Leon Tallis (Patrick Kennedy) has school friend Danny Hardman (Alfie Allen) in tow, figuring him to be a good match for Cecilia. A better match might be the cook's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), whom the family has put through college. Briony has something of a crush on him herself.

"Briony has not been exposed to what a modern girl her age sees, though, leading her to make a terrible accusation which tears Cecilia and Robbie apart. The story then picks up some five years later, with Robbie fighting the war in France, Cecilia having broken from her family and volunteering as a nurse in London, and Briony passing on Cambridge to follow in her sister's footsteps, trying to directly or indirectly make up for what she'd done as a child.

"The best part of ATONEMENT is its first act; though we've seen many of this story's elements before, seeing so much of it from a child's perspective gives it a different feel than usual. That's not to say that the filmmakers play coy with what's happening, but they frequently will show things from Briony's point of view before revisiting the scene with her as a minor presence. Ronan plays Briony as a somewhat dour, self-centered kid; the kind other children don't really want much to do with and whom adults indulge. We learn enough about her that her actions at the end of the sequence can't be simply marked up to spite, ignorance, or the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony alone, while also picking up enough information to understand what is actually happening.

"We also spend some time seeing Cecilia and Robbie recognize their attraction, and that's a nice subplot, but it doesn't really have enough weight to it that we necessarily buy into Cecilia trusting Robbie over her own sister, or for their later meeting and pining for each other to have the necessary intensity to carry much of the movie. The middle section is beautifully staged, but it suffers from the characters from the start spending too much time separated. McAvoy is pretty good in this segment, and he's got the best supporting cast and characterization of the bunch - his fellow soldiers take him for upper-class when he's all too well aware that the gentry abandoned him when it really counted - but his scenes with Knightley fall flat. Romola Garai is a good physical match for Ronan, but her Briony is less interesting than the younger edition: As much as writers and actors love characters who are motivated by guilt, they're pretty simple, in that they'll try to do the right thing and never feel it's enough.

"As relatively bland as the middle section of the film is, it's necessary for the revelations of the epilogue, though it doesn't quite build to them the way the first act does. It's an interesting ending, which raises interesting ideas about the writer's urge to control stories, both within their manuscripts and in real life. It's a side of Briony we've seen from the very start of the film (a pan across toys which have been precisely placed rather than played with) and the way she chooses to exercise that control in the end is at least interesting for managing to be both terribly hypocritical and terribly earnest. It's an interesting idea, and benefits greatly from having Vanessa Redgrave lay the facts out, but it's something that has to be talked through rather than shown, and renders some of what we've previously seen moot.

"I think the biggest issue with making the movie work as a whole is that we never get to see Briony be as smart as we're told she is. The reviews I've seen of McEwan's book describe it as much more about writing than the film is, which I think is necessary for the last act to resonate. Unfortunately, the only example of Briony's writing we get to see directly is giggle-worthy, an example of a child determined to use her entire large vocabulary (which absolutely fits her character at the time). What's shown of her later work doesn't really come across as brilliant, although that may be the point.

"As uneven as the execution sometimes is, ATONEMENT has a couple good ideas. It wisely saves the its best for the end, so there's something to talk about afterward. I'm still not sure whether that serves to disguise that ATONEMENT is an average period piece or pull it together as more than the sum of its parts. 3 Cats

"Seen 13 January 2008 at AMC Harvard Square #9 (first-run)"

"Note: There's a few more spoiler-y bits in the post on my blog"