Robbie (James McAvoy): I'm sorry, you weren't meant to see that. It was the wrong version.
Cecilia (Keira Knightley: What was in the right one?
Robbie: It was more formal, less...
Briony (Saoirse Ronan): Lola, can I tell you something? Something really terrible?
Lola (Juno Temple): Yes please.
Robbie: [voiceover] Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume. The one I had been planning on that evening walk. I can become again the man who once crossed the surrey park at dusk, in my best suit, swaggering on the promise of life. The man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you in the library. The story can resume. I will return. Find you, love you, marry you and live without shame.
At a glance: This unique, ambitious, and deeply tragic love story has moments of beauty and passion, but the screenplay makes a misguided attempt to invoke sympathy where none is warranted, which may leave some viewers dissatisfied and uninvolved.
In 1930s England, Cecilia (Keira Knightley) has spent plenty of time around the family gardener and handyman servant, Robby (James McAvoy). Although she has tried to stay aloof, she is in fact in love with him. When he sends her the wrong version of an apology letter – a version that is quite sexually explicit, her denial of that love is broken, and they make love and pledge their hearts to each other. The only problem is that her little sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has also read the letter, and it only confuses her fanciful mind and fuels a jealousy brought on by her ongoing fantasy crush on Robby. When Briony’s young visiting cousin Lola is attacked by a man that evening, Briony knows and sees it is someone else, but her mind convinces itself that it was Robby. With the weight and wealth of her family behind her, her testimony is enough to send Robby to prison. Three years later, Robby opts out of prison by taking an offer to fight the Germans in the French countryside of World War Two. Will Briony atone for her sins? Will Cecilia and Robby ever be together?
Atonement is a story of mistakes, lost chances, and tragedy, and it has the type of script that is geared toward Academy Awards, and has indeed been nominated for a slew of them, including Art Direction, Cinematography (it should win this one), Costume Design, Supporting Actress (Saoirse Ronan), and Picture. And there is much to make Atonement a movie worth watching. There are moments of cinematic triumph, like a long nightmarish tracking shot through a war-ravaged beach in France where waiting soldiers sing, vomit, shoot horses, and ride on the remains of seaside carousels. There is the exquisitely lit interiors of the mansion, shot in cathedral style by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. There is the clever use of an antique typewriter as soundtrack percussion. But on the flip side, sometimes the soundtrack is overbearingly morose where the script and acting should have been enough to deliver sorrow. And there is a misguided attempt to evoke pity for a woman who, as a 13 year old girl, knowingly accused a man of a crime she knew he didn't commit, just because of a crush and misguided jealousy. There’s also a totally unnecessary twist designed solely to tug the heartstrings – a twist so ridiculous it required a closing soliloquy by Vanessa Redgrave in a failed attempt to explain it. All in all, it’s a mixed bag: thought-provoking but (because of its misplaced morals) uninvolving for some viewers.
" [Director Joe] Wright brings off enough scenes to leave us with moderately good feelings about the time spent, but he lacks the David Lean-like vision and flair that might have turned this 75-year epic of love, war and family betrayal into an unforgettable movie."
- William Arnold (Seattle Post-Intelligence)
"Cleansing by self atonement doesn't hack it, and the resolution provided is superficial at best."
- Jules Brenner (Cinema Signals)