Atonement – Review (Spoiler Free)

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.

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14 comments

  1. I haven’t heard of this film very much and now I don’t think I’ll go see it. Nice review.

    1. Thanks, it’s probably worth seeing if you get the chance but I wouldn’t buy a copy.
      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Sorry you didn’t like it more, but I guess each person is moved by different films. I actually wasn’t a fan of this upon first viewing but I loved it on rewatch.

    1. Hmmm, I’ve seen bits of it before, and so this was sort of my second viewing… I guess I’ll have to see whether it improves if I see it again at some point! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. I wasn’t blown away by it but I did quite enjoy it. The story does fall a little flat in places though. However, the long take at the beach is absolutely breathtaking. Nice review!

    1. Yeah I enjoyed it to a degree, it’s just afterwards it all just felt a little meaningless. Thanks, and yes that shot is pretty impressive!

  4. Nice review. Despite being pretty negative, it actually makes me want to check it out more, cause I have heard both really good and really horrible things about it recently. I do like a film that divides people.

    1. Thanks, yeah I would recommend it to most people, just because so many people love it and as you say, it’s always interesting to see a film that splits people. I guess there is a lot to like with Atonement but it’s just not for me. It would be interesting to hear your take on it 🙂

  5. Great review and very honest. I want to say I love this film, and right now I do, but it’s also been very long since I watched this, so maybe I need to take it in again and see how it stands right now.

    1. Thanks a lot! It would be interesting to hear from you if your opinion does change when/if you see it again.

  6. I’m surprised. Haven’t’ read many bad reviews for this film plus 7 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture.. You probably should skip Anna Karenina then, which is out in theaters now. Same director and star. I however absolutely love both films and consider them among the best of their respective years.

    1. I’ve seen Anna Karenina and enjoyed the visuals but thought that they were ultimately a little meaningless. I prefer Atonement to Anna Karenina as there is quite a lot to like here, as I said in the review I really like the first act and the performances are really good. Do you know whether you prefer one of the films over the other?

      1. Between two great films that’s hard to say. I think Atonement is more emotionally involving. Anna Karenina is more a celebration of the film medium. One thing’s for sure. I can’t wait to see what Joe Wright does next.

    2. Fair enough, I reckon that I’ll carry on seeing his films because I do enjoy them up to a point. I will be interested in seeing what direction he takes after Anna Karenina.
      Thanks for commenting!

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