I am not a God-fearing man, but the heavens are shining down on me today. I told myself not to hype things up too much for the critically acclaimed Atonement, which is continuing to gather strength as a major awards contender. I told myself not to expect too much because I would end up being disappointed, and for just the first couple of minutes, I was. And then Joe Wright, the director of the surprisingly good Pride & Prejudice remake, stepped it up and started throwing punches.
“Punches” is not the type of word one would expect to read in a review about what is essentially a wartime romantic drama, but punches are exactly what Atonement delivers, time and time again. Like a great boxing adversary, the movie feints and deceives, drawing you in and at times even making you to drop your guard only to suddenly come at you with an onslaught of rapid fire one-two’s. You drop to your knees, but you manage to get up for the next round, but you know who’s going to win in the end.
I hope I haven’t scared anyone off with the boxing analogy – I’m not even a boxing fan myself – but Atonement is just an incredible film. I’m still counting on There Will Be Blood to take the number one spot, but having not seen that picture yet, I can say that so far, with exactly thirteen days left in December, Atonement is the best movie of 2007. It is a tour de force of drama, romance, sadness, war, great performances and superb, Oscar-worthy direction, plus a few tidbits of comedy near the beginning. It has a few slow, dwindling parts, but in hindsight it almost feels as those moments were intentional, because just when you think a story’s run its course, Atonement, based on the novel by Ian McEwan and adapted by Christopher Hampton, turns in a new direction and you’re left gasping for air.
I won’t go into details about the plot because there are a few small surprises that added to the impact of the film, but essentially Atonement is about a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) who witnesses something and comes to her own deductive conclusions. While she has convinced herself that she is telling the truth, she is simply wrong, and her decision is disastrous for her older sister (Kiera Knightley) and her lover (James McAvoy). Four years later, World War II is waging, and this young girl, now grown up, is still dealing with the consequences of her actions, while the other two are separated by war and clinging to a love that has been tested beyond imagination. It is a movie that will make women cry, but even men, like myself, will be astounded by just how mesmerizing the movie is.
McAvoy is terrific as Robbie Turner, and has an outside chance at an Oscar nomination as a result. Knightley is also at her best, though I wouldn’t say she stands out. But the acting falls second to the direction, which is simply excellent. Wright, with only his second feature-length picture, has all but guaranteed himself a nomination for Best Director with Atonement. The movie is simply stunning, despite the fact that Wright changes his style up so many times throughout the film. The first act of the picture plays out like a thriller, and it’s very deliberate, dark and ultimately quite depressing. It is here that the film plays out in its simplest form, though Wright plays with chronology to make things that much more alluring. When the film jumps forward four years, however, the movie turns into a romantic drama, though it’s not quite what you’d expect. Even within these bounds, Wright does wonderful things with the camera, including an incredibly long shot that pans across and through various scenes on a war torn beach. Most of the audience didn’t even realize what was going on, but my brother and I looked at each other in disbelief at the sheer skill required of the scene. After this, though, the movie progresses into an entirely new realm, as Wright starts to play with the characters and the audience in a way you rarely see.
The ending… Wright scares you for a moment. The ending is bold, and at first, when the movie jumps ahead in time, I flinched, I cringed and I shook my head in disbelief. “How could such a great movie end so horribly?” I thought to myself, horrified at what I was witnessing. Then, suddenly, there’s a hint of something more, and then more, and then bam! There’s that punch again! The knock out blow. But you’re on the floor, still conscious, hearing the referee count to ten, and Wright squeezes in one more blow, a softer one that is simultaneously sweet and utterly saddening.
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