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Atonement (2007)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 3/18/2008

All Ratings out of
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/16/2008

During the 1980 and 1990s, when one would speak of British historical dramas, the team of Merchant-Ivory wouldn't be far behind. With films such as A Room with a View, Howard's End, and The Remains of the Day, they established themselves as the masters of costume dramas which focused on England in the recent past. Following this, we saw a trend in films which adapted the work of Jane Austen. All of these movies featured stories which would have been considered quite scandalous during the time periods in which the respective films were set, but which seemed quite tame by today's standards. At first glance, Atonement appears to be an extension of those films, but it quickly becomes clear that the movie isn't pulling any punches and isn't interested in being genteel.

Atonement opens in the British countryside in 1935. Here, we meet the upper-crust Tallis family. Young Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is an aspiring writer who, at age 13, has just completed her first play. She is a very serious child, and she often spies on her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Cecilia often flirts with Robbie (James McAvoy), who is the son of a servant. Although technically lower-class, the Tallis' have paid for Robbie's education and he plans to attend medical school. Despite her young age, Briony is jealous of Robbie's attention towards Cecilia. Following an odd altercation with Cecilia, in which he practically sees her naked, Robbie decides to let Cecilia know of his feelings for her. (Briony also witnesses this event, and is confused by it.) Robbie decides to write a letter to Cecilia, and while approaching the house for a dinner-party, asks Briony to give Cecilia the letter. Seconds later, Robbie realizes that instead of the intended love note, he's handed Briony a rather risquť letter that heíd written as a lark. Briony reads the letter herself before delivering it to Cecilia. Despite the tawdry tone of the note, Cecilia reacts positively to Robbieís affections.

Later that night, a rape occurs on the house grounds. Without thinking, Briony reports that she saw Robbie at the scene of the crime, using the note to support her notion that he could be a rapist. This outcry sets in motion a series of events which will deeply effect the lives of Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie. As World War II engulfs Britain and Briony matures, she begins to understand the enormous power of her words.

At the outset, Atonement feels like any other drama which shows how the rich and powerful lived in the early part of the 20th Century. Then, around the 21-minute mark, it happens. When Robbie is trying to think of something to write to Cecilia and he types out the ill-advised note which will eventually fall into Brionyís hands, a word which typically isnít allowed in mixed company suddenly appears on-screen, one letter at a time. I can only imagine what it was like seeing the film in the theater and watching that word form with 40-foot high letters! This is where the viewer sits up and takes note, and alternately thinks, ďI didnít know they used that word back then.Ē and ďI would get punched for saying that word.Ē This scene, and an intimate encounter which shortly follows, demonstrates to us that Atonement ainít your mommaís historical drama and that itís not afraid to peel back the covers on high society.

Atonement is built around the story of itís three core characters, Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie, and their story is interesting. The story is basically broken into two parts -- the events leading up to Brionyís accusation of Robbie, and the years following when the three are caught up in the events of World War II. Itís interesting to note that much of the actual story concerns Cecilia and Robby, but itís the actions of Briony which propel the film along, and we often see the story through her eyes. Briony herself is an interesting character. It would be very easy to characterize her as yet another incarnation of The Bad Seed. But, her story goes deeper than that. She is a girl who is wise beyond her years, but throughout the film, she demonstrates that despite this, she is naive to the ways of the world.

While Atonement has an interesting story, Director Joe Wright, has chosen an odd way to tell it. If one takes the basic story of the film, it could have easily been told in a linear fashion. While it would have been intriguing, it may have been somewhat stale. So, Wright has chosen to insert some Rashomon-like moments where we see an event from different viewpoints. There are scenes that arenít done in chronological order. In the filmís most famous shot, characters arrive on the beach at Dunkirk, France, and we are treated to a 5-minute SteadiCam shot as they tour the area. These filmmaking techniques certainly spice up the film, but they are confusing as well. While most of the film is done in a straight-forward fashion, why does Wright suddenly become Chris Nolan or Brian De Palma at times? The filmís pacing is also quite slack in the first half. It takes nearly an hour to get to Brionyís accusation, but only about 30 minutes of actual story takes place in that time. And then we have the filmís ďtwistĒ ending. For starters, it wasnít all that surprising. Secondly, it left me numb and didnít effect me at all. We are meant to be taken aback by the revelation that all isnít what it seems, but it did nothing for me. This may be due to the overall cold feeling of the film and the fact that we never warm up to the characters.

Atonement is yet another Oscar-caliber film over which Iím torn. The film is beautifully made and well acted, and itís worth seeing for the beach scene alone. The story plays as mixture of drama, war movie, and noir, and it shows a side of British society which we donít often glimpse in these films. But, itís slow and the clever filmmaking tricks incorporated by Wright feel like theyíre compensating for an overall pedestrian story.  The best part of the film is the score by Dario Marianelli.  The incorporation of typewriter sound effects with the orchestral music is brilliant.  It sounds like an off-shoot of industrial music and it ties in to the constant writing in the film.

Atonement falsely accuses DVD courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate releases, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, as the picture shows essentially no grain (save for some shots later in the film) and no defects from the source material. I did find the image to be unusually bright in the daytime scenes, however, with the edges of the picture sometime blooming into white. This aside, the colors look good for the most part, especially when contrasted with the drab look of the filmís second half. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The filmís music, which, again, is very impressive and is almost a character in the movie, sounds fantastic here. There arenít many opportunities for stereo and surround effects, but the audio in the beach scene is very good and adds yet another dimension to that impressive shot.

The Atonement DVD contains a small variety of bonus features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from director Joe Wright. This is a fairly good chat as Wright speaks at length throughout the film. His comments are mostly scene specific and he gives many details about what we are watching. But, some comments, such as ďI like shots of handsĒ are very personal and donít contribute to our understanding of the movie or how it was made. "Bringing the Past to Life: The Making of Atonement" (27 minutes) explores many different parts of the film's production. The filmmakers and novelist Ian McEwan discuss the story. There is than a look at director Joe Wright. There is a discussion of the use of real locations and how this effects the actors. As one would expect, we get information on the long shot on the beach. In "From Novel to Screen: Adapting a Classic" (5 minutes) Wright, screenwriter Christopher Hampton, and McEwan talk about the style of the novel and how it was adapted to the screen. There is talk of the characters and storylines were preserved. The DVD contains seven DELETED SCENES which run about 8 minutes and can be viewed with commentary by Wright. These are all brief scenes, most of which involved Robbie in the war, and don't introduce any new information.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long