‘Atonement’ an ambitious masterpiece

David Hohwald

Keira Knightley. Palatial England. Forbidden romance. Sound familiar?

It certainly comes as no surprise, given that Joe Wright, director of the recent adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” decided to follow his breakout success with “Atonement,” a film with the same lead actress and a similar location.

Yet “Atonement” does so much more than the previous film.

It takes the traditional Merchant Ivory style and then turns it on its head by adapting the critically acclaimed Ian McEwan novel in the best of ways. In fact, the only real constraint that keeps “Atonement” from being a truly fantastic film is its literary nature.

The most noticeable thing about “Atonement” is that Wright’s film has style. The use of color in the film is excellent, with distinctive tones and excellent use of contrast reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The scenery is gorgeous and, instead of hindering the film by drawing the eye away from the scene, improves it by providing incredible locales and realistic areas.

From the beginning it is obvious that, if nothing else, the movie will be pretty; the estate where the first third of the film takes place is literally stunning.

However, this is nothing compared to Wright recreating the Dunkirk evacuation on a grand scale and then taking the audience through it in a lush four-minute unbroken tracking shot, showing the scope of the event in the way that cinema can only hope to achieve most of the time. That said, many people will want to see this movie for its big-hitting cast, specifically Knightley in a role similar to the one that garnered an Oscar nomination.

She is solid in the film, although her range is not fantastic, but the few flaws in her performance are really negligible.

The only reason they stand out is that the rest of the cast is pretty fantastic. James McAvoy shows his tremendous skill with a great follow-up to “The Last King of Scotland” by showcasing the emotional rollercoaster of his character, Robbie Turner.

Saoirse Ronan delivers one of the best child performances in recent memory as Briony Tallis, an imaginative young girl whose terrible mistake triggers a tragic series of events.

Also notable is Benedict Cumberbatch as Paul Marshall, who positively exudes villainy in every scene he is in.

He steals every scene with a smirk that reveals everything about his character. Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave are also excellent in smaller performances in “Atonement.” The writing, however, is both the strength and the weakness of the movie. The first act of the film is fantastically scripted.

It has great dialogue, and Wright wields a masterful control of exposition to create every character without anything feeling forced.

Every character feels real, and there’s not an ounce of pretension.

Wright also manages to use multiple vantage points effectively, giving the viewer a ton of information in an interesting way.

The second act is nearly as good, and the only knock against it is that there’s simply not as much of Wright’s great dialogue in it.

The only problem is, throughout these first two acts Wright creates some pretty grand stakes with both his cinematography and his writing.

This ambition, while impressive in and of itself, is really the only flaw of the film because the final act of the film, while managing to deliver a good and really interesting ending, fails to live up to the stakes Wright creates. It also uses a literary style that doesn’t feel quite right in movie format and seems a little forced, especially when the writing had been so effortless before. The result is a beautiful journey but one that feels somehow incomplete.

For all its skill, “Atonement” seems like it could have done a little less, perhaps by editing out a few scenes or narrowing its focus, without losing anything.

That said, the ending will leave the viewer emotional in the best way a movie can, evoking emotion rather than playing into them. “Atonement” is a great film. It’s worth watching for a number of reasons, from the beautiful photography and talented acting to the skillful writing that captures the fancy.

The only real problem with it is that the movie is so ambitious it cannot sustain a completely satisfying ending, especially with its literary tinge.

The ending is not terrible; in fact it is very good by most standards, just not the standards Wright sets for himself throughout the film.

Still, “Atonement” is a movie worth seeing in the theater for any fans of romance, intrigue and war.