'Atonement' is a magnificently-mounted, achingly romantic epic. It has everything one would expect from this type of grand, melodramatic Hollywood weepie, one designed from the first frame to incite critical euphoria and win a bucket-load of Academy Awards. It's based on an acclaimed literary novel, it's filled with good-looking British actors, it's set against the backdrop of a historical event (in this case WWII), and it is, of course, tragic. For most of its runtime the film is thoroughly engaging, emotionally gripping and, at times, profoundly moving. Indeed, if great movies are the stuff of intangible magic, 'Atonement' seems to possess it in spades.
Unfortunately, where 'Atonement' departs from the established 'English Patient' formula for Oscar success is in its last act denouement, which comes so far out of left-field that I defy even the most astute viewers to see it coming. This is not a compliment. 'Atonement' is a potentially great film marred by what I felt was a bit of a narrative cheat. I would not, of course, dare to spoil the eventual surprise, but this is a film that ultimately fails to earn the big emotions it wants to elicit from the audience, because it is not upfront about its motives from the beginning. The final scene of this movie is an easy, manipulative, and rather shameless ploy to bring added gravity to a story that already had enough on its own.
Based on Ian McEwan's best-selling book, 'Atonement' is structured in three fairly tight acts before the aforementioned coda. I found the first act to be the most compelling. It introduces us to three characters who are immediately fascinating. Sisters Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Briony (Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) are children of great privilege and wealth. While the war rages, Briony writes inventive mini-plays, often roping in Cecilia and other visitors to their pastoral British estate just for the fun of it. Then one day the handsome Robbie (James McAvoy) arrives. The son of the estate’s housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn), Robbie is well educated but lower class, and Cecilia is immediately attracted to his roguish sexual energy (and, we will learn in one of the film's most erotic scenes, his penchant for writing vulgar love notes).
Briony, however, is not amused by Cecilia and Robbie's amorous encounters, she's utterly bewildered. Misunderstanding the complications of mature sexual attraction, Briony makes a catastrophic decision, and embroils Robbie in the attempted rape of a visiting relative. Briony's campaign of misinformation proves disastrous and quickly separates the would-be couple, with Robbie forced to join the British Army, while Cecilia also makes a series of fateful decisions in the hopes of reconnecting with her great love.
This set-up is fantastic. Key to the subsequent story will be our uncertainty regarding Briony's true motives. Ronan is extraordinary here, conveying both child-like confusion and adult cunning with a single glance. Knightley likewise impresses with her ability to plumb hidden depths in the newly-eroticized Cecilia, while McAvoy is rakish and aggressive without being smug. As directed by Joe Wright ('Pride & Prejudice'), 'Atonement' is also beautifully shot and paced, experimenting with time and place in a way that, if at first disorienting, pays handsome dividends in keeping us absolutely in thrall as the story unfolds. Like another character in the movie, Dario Marianelli's Oscar-winning score is simply beautiful -- evocative, propulsive, and haunting.
The film's second and third acts don't quite have the same sense of urgency as the characters' stories fragment and intertwine. Wright still commands an excellent sense of time and place, but I began to lose a little faith in the narrative. The film meanders in fits and starts, focusing a bit too much on Robbie (Cecilia begins to feel like a bystander), and the slow burn of Briony's growing realization as to the full affect her juvenile decision has had on her sister could have been better modulated. Yet, I still couldn't look away -- 'Atonement's first two hours felt like half that, and as the three characters finally re-converged in the third act to meet their fates, I braced myself for a gangbusters resolution.
Unfortunately, the end of 'Atonement' was so sudden for me that I almost couldn't believe the film was over. I lay the blame on McEwan's source -- an overrated novel that, while well-written, bites off more than it can chew. I simply can't spoil the ending, but the attempt to re-frame our entire understanding of the story in one single scene left me frustrated, not by the thematic point McEwan was making, but by the unfair manner in which he was making it. Had we known of his intended story conceit from the beginning (all I'll say is that a main character reveals a startling secret in the last scene) it would not have allowed for a big "twist,' but would have been more emotionally satisfying. As it is, it just feels like a curve ball, thrown in to get people talking and to sell more books.
Yet, despite my utter disappointment with the concluding scenes, the film is so strong in most other respects that it remains well worth seeing. Perhaps you will have an entirely different reaction to the ending than I did (indeed, some found great pleasure in McEwan's audacious surprises). Certainly, 'Atonement' is a beauty to behold, with gorgeous imagery, wonderful performances and a stirring score. There are also moments so perfectly realized that it's easy to see why the film managed to snag seven Oscar noms (including the coveted Best Picture) despite such widely divergent reactions to its narrative revelations. For me, the film is less than the sum of its parts... but oh, what parts they are.
This HD DVD/DVD Combo release presents 'Atonement' in 1080p/VC-1 video (on the HD DVD side of the disc), framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It is a restrained but often visually arresting film, and it looks superb in high-def.
The film's color palette runs a gamut of expressions, specific to the narrative. This transfer handles the stylistic shifts with ease, veering from a more saturated, lush feel in the earlier passages towards a desaturated sheen during the wartime sequences. Hues always remain stable and clean, and fleshtones (if sometimes drained of orange) are still appropriate. Visible detail is usually terrific, with excellent depth and sharpness. Universal also seems to have finally put an embargo on edge enhancement (at least on their new releases), and this is a wonderfully textured image free of visible artifacts. The print is also pristine, with rich blacks and contrast that only occasionally runs on the hot side. Certainly, 'Atonement' looks smashing.
'Atonement' enjoys only Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround (1.5mbps) audio, in English and French. The lack of a high-res option is my major disappointment with this disc.
Dario Marianelli's Oscar-winning score is fantastic (my favorite of the year, in fact), and though it is presented serviceably here, it could have sounded so much better. The film's sound design is really quite aggressive and creative, with an effective blend of score and effects, and some bass-heavy moments during the wartime middle half. Alas, the Dolby Digital track just doesn't quite cut it. Envelopment is decent throughout, but the intensity of the surrounds fails to satisfy. Dynamic range certainly sounds polished and professional, but neither the low bass extension nor the clarity of the high-end approaches the best high-res tracks I've heard. Dialogue is well recorded and balanced, so thank goodness for small favors. I just expected more out of the audio on this disc.
Hitting HD DVD day-and-date with the DVD version, 'Atonement' has a well-stocked if far from overflowing package of extras. All material is presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, and there are no subtitles on any of the extras.
'Atonement' is a complex, intelligent, and sometimes quite effective romantic epic. It's also disjointed and a bit of a cheat, with an ending that tries too hard for relevance that it just hasn't earned. Still, this is such a well-mounted and finely-acted film that this HD DVD is worth a look. The video is quite good, the audio is a disappointment (due to the lack of a TrueHD track), and the supplements package is fairly standard (though the audio commentary is excellent). If you don't mind a romantic weepie stabbed in the heart by a fatal narrative flaw, 'Atonement' is worth a look.