Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave
Director: Joe Wright
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 123 Minutes
Release Date: March 18, 2008

“I saw him. I saw him with my own eyes.”

Film ***1/2

At first glance, Atonement seemed like the kind of film I tend not to go for. Had it not been for two important factors, I may have completely ignored the movie entirely. Those factors were the Oscar attention it received, and the presence of two of my favorites of mine in the cast.

So I sat in the theater, the film came on the screen, and I was nothing short of astounded. It was absolutely nothing like I expected. It is a beautiful, haunting and remarkably made piece of cinema that stayed with me long after I saw. Mind you, the day I saw it at the theater I ended up seeing another film later that night, which was There Will Be Blood. Needless to say, I had a lot to take in after that double feature.

Director Joe Wright, whose last film was the most successful film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, has made another outstanding screen translation of an acclaimed literary piece in the form of the novel by Ian McEwan. Wright, along with screenwriter Christopher Hampton, has successfully adapted a novel many say was un-filmable.

The setting is 1930s England, and the story centers on a young girl named Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), who is already an aspiring playwright. She is fascinated with creating stories to share with everyone. She looks forward to daily talks with Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son. Robbie, meanwhile, finds himself falling for Briony’s older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley).

The first 45 minutes of Atonement unfold in purely masterful and artistic manner. It’s such a phenomenal setup for the story, and it leads up to a conflict that does nothing short of slap you in the face. Some sequences even play twice, the first time from Briony’s perspective, the second time showing how an event actually plays out. This narrative twist is not used as a gimmick, but rather purposefully to later reveal a character’s misjudgment.

Briony witnesses Robbie and Cecilia interact from afar, and witnesses Cecilia storm off. Later that day, as a dinner party is about to begin at the Tallis estate, Briony opens a letter from Robbie to Cecilia and is horrified. That night, she misreads a romantic encounter between Robbie and Cecilia as an attack. Before the night is over Briony, acting on pure jealousy, will construct a vicious lie about Robbie that will devastate and change the course of several lives.

The story then cuts to four years later, as we see both Robbie and Cecilia affected by the horrors of World War II. He joined the army to avoid going to jail, as Briony’s accusation was most convincing. Cecilia is serving as a nurse; both for the cause and to be as closest as she can to the man she loves, and will probably never get to love.

The scenes set against the war are extraordinarily effective (a long tracking shot of Robbie walking from one end of a war torn beach side is devastating and breathtaking). But because the first half of the film is so remarkably strong in every possible way, the WWII segments don’t quite measure up. That’s the only factor that keeps Atonement from being a four star movie. But the concluding portion of the film is quite a stunner, and the feeling I felt from it was the same as being hit by a ton of bricks.

I mentioned earlier about two favorites of mine in the cast, and that would be James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. McAvoy, who I thought was terrific in The Last King of Scotland, delivers another stellar performance here that will have your heart breaking. And Ms. Knightley, who’s one of the most gorgeous women in the world, is not only great to look at here but gives her finest screen performance yet, though I still have yet to see Pride and Prejudice.

Atonement is a mesmerizing piece that was very worthy of the oscar attention it received, and is a haunting and effective story that goes beyond expectations. If watch this expecting a classy period piece, you are going to be enormously surprised for all the right reasons. And though it didn’t quite crack my Ten Best list for the year, it is easily an honorable mention for 2007.

Video ****

This release from Universal is tremendously gorgeous in every aspect. The film carries with it a look of beauty, and the top-notch video quality does it absolute justice. Image is thoroughly crisp, and the level of visual detail is astounding, both in the English countryside and WWII settings. A tremendous job well done! 

Audio ***1/2

You wouldn’t expect it but this period piece, which is mostly dialogue-driven, has a bit more to offer in the realm of sound, and the 5.1 mix is effective in its presentation. What should be mentioned right off the bat is the Oscar-winning score by Dario Marianelli, which is simply fantastic to hear. The combing of the music and numerous sounds, particularly the clicking of a typewriter, plays off amazingly. The sequences set against WWII also provide some stunning sounding moments. Dialogue delivery is terrifically clear, in addition.

Features ***

Included on the disc is a commentary with director Joe Wright, a documentary titled “Bringing the Past to Life: The Making of Atonement”, and “From Novel to Screen: Adapting a Classic”, which features a brief interview with author Ian McEwan, and Deleted Scenes.


Atonement is a film that defies expectations and delivers quite an impact. Remarkable acting, directing, and storytelling all blend to make a film experience that you shouldn’t miss.

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