“Atonement”: For Your Anti-Valentine’s Consideration

But how can a person atone? Some wrongs can’t be righted. Some crimes can’t be forgiven. When a moment is lost, it’s lost. Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, regarding Atonement

Always for some reason interested in what’s new in Anti-Valentine’s sentiments, I came across the listing of Atonement, a favorite movie of mine from 2007, as someone’s idea of something to watch if you’re a viewer who isn’t feeling so Valentine-y, whether now or ever.

Atonement, based on the novel by Ian McEwan, is about love, yes, but it’s actually a romance of the tragic kind—as well as a mystery of sorts.

Many who’d read the book were afraid the movie wouldn’t do it justice. Most were more than pleased with the results.

Atonement starts out in rural England, 1935. We meet 13-year-old aspiring writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan). She and her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) are of an upper crust family, whereas Cecilia’s romantic interest, Robbie (James McAvoy), has working-class roots.

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, sets up the initial scenes, which reveal how Briony’s youth and situational confusion heralds major trouble:

Briony is the sister of Cecilia (Knightley), who is in love with Robbie (McAvoy), though he doesn’t know it. For the first few minutes of the film, we see Cecilia and Robbie’s burgeoning passion through the hungry but uncomprehending gaze of Briony. From an upstairs window, she witnesses an odd scene that seems faintly depraved to her eyes. And then, in the first indication that this is no Jane Austen retread, the movie does something narratively innovative: It rewinds the clock by about 15 minutes and shows us the same incident from the perspective of Cecilia and Robbie. It’s much more innocent the second time.

‘Atonement’ soon turns into a film that puts viewers on the edge of their seats wanting to know what happens next. The turn comes no more than 20 minutes in, with an event that’s so compelling and surprising that no one reading this deserves to have it spoiled. (Friendly advice: Don’t read any other reviews.)

I agree. If you haven’t ever seen Atonement, skip trying to know too many details about it beforehand. It’s better that way.

How about some sweeping and brief summaries instead?

Roger Ebert: “‘Atonement’ begins on joyous gossamer wings, and descends into an abyss of tragedy and loss. Its opening scenes in an English country house between the wars are like a dream of elegance, and then a 13-year-old girl sees something she misunderstands, tells a lie and destroys all possibility of happiness in three lives, including her own.”

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: “Ian McEwan’s beautiful novel, masterfully adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton and directed by Joe Wright (‘Pride & Prejudice’), is at its heart about language and its power: about the way a lie told by a child — inspired by a letter not intended for her eyes — changes the lives of those who hear it; and how that child later longs to make things right again…”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “…(I)t’s a story of a youthful jealousy that leads to a monstrous falsehood that in turn ruins the lives of a disparate group of people, and ultimate retribution that comes decades too late.”

The trailer, of course, hints at more:

Selected Brief Reviews

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: “On paper and on screen, ‘Atonement’ is a story of rare beauty, both wrenching and wise.”

Jack MathewsNew York Daily News: “It is an amazing story, filled with quiet moments of profundity and more surprises than you could imagine.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post:

Nothing comes easily in ‘Atonement,’ especially its ending, which, both happy and tragic, is as wrenching as it is genuinely satisfying.

Like McEwan, albeit with a vastly different artistic grammar, Wright casts a spell every bit as captivating as Briony’s tangled web. It’s fitting, somehow, that a novel so devoted to the precision and passionate love of language should be captured in a film that is almost too exquisite for words.

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