Before I get to the reasons why I dislike this film, I shall start by saying that the performances across the board are all great. Keira Knightley plays Cecilia and gives what’s possibly her all-time best performance here, James McAvoy plays her lover, Robbie, and also does a good job, and then Saoirse Ronan plays Briony – the young girl who tells a devastating lie, and she handles her character very, very well. The whole film hinges on this character’s believability and Ronan nails it. Aside from the actors, the film looks pretty impressive, is directed well, and even though it gets pretty slow at times, always keeps up an appearance of quality and substance. And yet despite all its grandeur and potentially deep emotional turmoil, Atonement just feels hollowed out to me, it’s a little soulless. It’s a strange feeling because there is more than enough here to suggest that the film could be brilliant; the first act for example is significantly better than the rest of the film. It builds its multiple tensions and conflicts really well, and the general sense of unease that’s created is handled precisely and deftly. But once we move into the second act the film seems to lose its way; the storylines and characters become uninteresting surprisingly quickly, scenes that should be emotionally devastating feel instead disconnected, and unfortunately the film never manages to match the standard it set itself in the opening act.
I can’t quite shake the feeling that what remains in the film is the left over footage, that which should have been edited out, and that we are somehow missing multiple key scenes. It just never moves, nothing ever develops or progresses with any real sense of momentum, and consequently I just can’t quite get emotionally involved with it. And this portion of the film takes place during Dunkirk, my emotional response should be on overdrive! What makes the first act ultimately so much better than the rest of the film, is its clear sense of drive towards an event, it makes it clear that we are building toward something, but the rest of the film just hangs around limply.
And so I don’t hate Atonement, it feels as if it is very good and it has moments that are really suggestive of greatness, but all that is undercut by a hard to define listlessness. It’s probably worth seeing because of the performances given, and the clearly apparent hard work that went into making the film, but it just doesn’t do much for me.