All the beautiful scenes needed to tell this story are there (along with more than a few extras), but unfortunately, they’re in the worst possible order imaginable.
13-year old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) fancies herself a writer and playwright. Living in the mid-thirties British countryside prior to World War II, Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is fancied by Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a self-made lad who is a bit more candid about his affection toward Cecilia than proper society tolerates in the open. After an incident where Briony mistakenly but adamantly accuses Robbie of the rape of another young girl, the lad is thrown into prison with only a military enlistment available to him as an escape. Flash forward a few years where Robbie and Cecelia meet again for the chance to be happy together, but will fate (and the screenplay) let them have their happily ever after?
Both director Joe Wright and star Keira Knightley previously lent their considerable talents to a fair adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, so we know what they are capable of. The cinematography (especially showcasing the tragic war retreat at Dunkirk) is amazing, and the attention to detail is equally up to the highest standards. So why does this film seem so dull and, worse yet, completely disjointed from beginning to end? Not having read the Ian McEwan novel or the Christopher Hampton screenplay, I can only assume that either one of these two or the film’s final editor must be blamed for the unfulfilling final product.
First off, we are presented with a main character who, at the end of the second act, completely disappears as four years sudden go by, forcing us to reassess who this story is about. In addition, the third act is littered by quick cuts (showing scenes before and after where we come back in) that not only become confessing but start to confuse what we already know. Then, just as suddenly, Briony reappears and suddenly becomes important again. Finally at the film’s conclusion, the ending you just watched is ripped away with an epilogue that should have been at the beginning of the film as the opening, not as an afterthought to the ending. All of the clues that something isn’t right suddenly do make sense, and as a result, the entire ending makes you feel very cheated for having endured such a contrived ending hoping for any kind of rewarding payoff. It’s audience manipulation at its worse, which is sad because a better edit could have fixed this. Why wasn’t it?
It’s true that many people judge an entire film by its conclusion; ruin the ending and no amount of good intentions prior to it will have any positive bearing on word of mouth luring more unsuspecting fools into your show. It’s also true that sometimes multiple endings are justified, like the five final bows taken for The Return of the King, but sometimes these multi-endings are just the studio not able to decide which ending to use and trying to throw them all out there, like they did for Shooter. In the case of Atonement, we get two endings, with one feeling very contrived and the latter feeling very manipulated but neither being particularly satisfying. Sweeping locations, beautiful cinematography, and suburb casting be damned, a bad story is a bad story no matter how you dress it up, and the only thing worse than leaving the theater unfulfilled is feeling manipulated and foolish for your own emotional investment.
(a one skull recommendation out of four)