If there are any two things dreaded in the world of cinema, they might be a director's sophomore slump and the "overhyped award trap" of a film. Seeing talent seep through the cracks in their second time amidst the craft can be a very sad sight. A few years back, director Joe Wright took the historically lauded novel, Pride and Prejudice, and crafted an authentically evocative experience that both stayed true to Jane Austen's potent lyricism and left widespread cinematic eyes enchanted. His freshmen attempt at feature-length storytelling was, and remains, a tremendous success. Atonement, quite contrarily to hovering curses, is a moving masterwork that bests his premiere film, one that's dramatic, artistic, beautifully shot, emotionally touching, and, to say it simply, just an astoundingly complete piece of heartbreaking cinema.
Set in mid-1930's England, Atonement adapts Ian McEwan's novel about Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a teenage writer wedged in her family's manor amongst the enchanting rustic countryside. There, she scribes plays and jostles across the grassy expanses pining after Robbie (James McAvoy), the family housekeeper's son. His infatuation, however, is engulfed with Cecilia (Keira Knightly), his summertime pupil and Briony's visiting older sister. One day, a day in which Briony is set to assemble one of her productions with other family members, she witnesses an argument between the two that results in Cecilia storming off, dripping wet, in a fit of anger. Briony doesn't initially see their passion, only Cecilia's fury, thus weaving together the fabric of her misguided bitterness.
Atonement remains gentle and wispy throughout its graceful, tension-mounting entrance; from Briony's enamored glances to Robbie's gruff smirks, it encapsulates a comforting tone within its gorgeously confined space. Part of the film's majestic beauty comes from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's impeccable photography, which is especially sensuous at the start. It blooms with a radiant glow, making certain to feel indulgently pure and almost heavenly from the beginning. Following Briony's numerous pathways through ivy tunnels and wood-clad hallways crafts immediacy, but a specific kind of immediacy that feels peaceful. Briony, impeccably portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, comes across as naturally tense, but with a spice for life that shines through her haunting glances.
"Haunting" cleverly describes the picture in itself, especially once the stigmatic letter changes hands. Its tonal volume begins to quickly darken when the film's spiteful wrath crosses paths with purity. At his own fault, Robbie mistakenly sends Cecilia one of his private, erotically lurid brainstorms, all typed on paper, by means of a misplaced letter set to be delivered by Briony. She, instead, cracks open Pandora's Box by prying that letter open in a flash of breathless intensity. There's a moment in which she hesitates before doing so; that quiet buzz in the air as she tersely fidgets with the envelope encapsulates the dormant, stoic energy present across the first act of the film. Appalled by the contents of a letter never meant to be read, Briony becomes infuriated with her crush. Through chance circumstances involving two lost family members later that evening, she falsely accuses Robbie of venturing aside from the search and committing a defamatory, sexually condemning atrocity. There's yet another rapturous point of "silent thunder" at Briony's pivotal moment of decisiveness to step up and taint Robbie's name, which really explodes in a wealth of dramatic magnetism.
Atonement, amidst phenomenally taut momentum, cultivates performance and artistry alike into one masterfully accomplished piece of dramatic vigor. It cannot be directly contributed to the stellar cast, the robust direction from Wright, or even the visual grandeur it grasps from its cinematography. No, it's the culmination of everything Wright accomplishes into one historically effervescent entity that really grabs the viewers by their soulful hearts and thrust them forward through its powerful, albeit perplexingly hard, material. Broken hearts are the core of the picture's intensity, tapping directly into gut-wrenching emotionality to unabashed degrees, and witnessing the plummet and awakening of all the characters gyrating around this blossoming piece of work. It gradually gets worse for everyone around the crumbling central friendships, and something about the mix of striking photography and bravura performances keeps us utterly vexed from beginning to end.
Though a discomforting tone resides in Saoirse Ronan as Briony at the start, the chemistry between Keira Knightley's Cecilia and James McAvoy's Robbie stretch its sincerity well across the film's divisive four year time lapse into the surmounting complexities of wartime Europe. After all, let's remember that the definition of atonement can be summed up as "making amends" or "reconciliation". It confronts the frailty of innocence, while also hinging on the strength of belief and posterity as the effects of malevolent actions run their course. Both Cecilia and Robbie must confront life after Briony's cataclysmic lie, offering some of the more simply potent themes within Atonement. It extends to the thresholds of World War II and Robbie's strained involvement in the evacuation at Dunkirk after he's forcefully enlisted. There's an incredible tracking shot here that follows Robbie and several other soldiers through the campsite; however, while we follow his pathway through the intricately crumbled land capsized with bodies, boats, and bonfires, James McAvoy's strained and sickly glances lend a pensive air about him. His desperation for life pours through amidst this crumbled gorgeousness, though trumped by his persistent hunger for Cecilia. Never does just one aesthetic or one performance truly stand out; almost always, it's that equilibrium that gives Atonement its richness.
Well, almost always. Possibly the most unique aesthetic of the film, aside from these seamlessly bleeding edits from paradise to war torn dilapidation, is this amazing score from composer Dario Marianelli that manages to stand out on more than a handful of occasions. Normally, discussions about original music revolving around artists like Clint Mansell or Alexandre Desplat focus on their sumptuousness or majesty, and nothing more. Marianelli's work on Atonement achieves, on top of those qualities, a certain inventive originality; he keeps rhythm in the film along with a series of typewriter clicks synched with splendid chords that struggle to keep speed with the rapid pace. Few musical cues can both be foreshadowing, tense, and striking, yet Marianelli's Academy-award winning composition grips it all in brusque fashion.
There are many of such nuances to be discovered and rediscovered within Wright's richly crafted layers of love's loss, vitality, and malignant destruction. Little camera tricks, musical cues, and minuscule mannerisms surface repeatedly even after indulging several times into Atonement's plummet into despondency. Marketing for this film has it all wrong; walking into this film expecting a whimsical romance that'll warm the heart is a lot like waltzing into a luxury car lot expecting to find an affordable beater. Once you've taken a look at the reality within Atonement, in its poetically melancholy and evocative strength, you're more than glad it wasn't what was to be expected. Wright's sophomore production is a beautifully sharp tour de force that, needless to say, shouldn't be missed.
Universal presents Atonement in a standard keepcase presentation with quality, highly-attractive coverart adorned with a solid blue border. Inside, the disc remains artless except for the film's title etched in it signature font across the top
Video and Audio:
Universal and Focus Features have, once again, taken a 1.85:1 image to standard DVD and made it an immensely strong achievement. Atonement's anamorphic widescreen presentation harnesses the Academy Award nominated cinematography with incredible strength, paralyzing the eyes with its shimmering radiance. It has its moments where digital noise can be seen here and there, lending a shade of the noise effect on some more complicated backgrounds. Outside of that and a sly amount of edge enhancement that renders into a little bit of a halo effect, Atonement looks outstanding. Little details, like the textures on cloth and the granules on jewelry stand out with incredible detail. Rendered lighting and detail within shadowy sequences still shine, even amidst some challenging darker sequences in nighttime forest scenes. Most incredibly luminous, however, is the outstanding color range apparent in this transfer. Atonement's visual attitude is haunting to the core, and Universal has made certain that this visual masterpiece would stand solid even in a standard definition image.
If Atonement's recognized cinematography was made certain to look outstanding, then the award-winning musical accompaniment should sound equally as fluid. Its Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation steps up to the challenge by billowing with reverent volume. One of the most affective sounds in the film is the clicking of a typewriter. Each and every stroke, whether in rhythm with the music or standing alone, raps with fervency. It's also a well separated sound design; at one point, the whirring of a fan and the thumping of a bouncing ball ricochets the audience's attention as they look upon a woman lying in bed. Surrounds come into play fairly often, especially in crowded proximities and with the musical accompaniment. Every ounce of audio stretches, both to the high end and down to the LFE channel, with great flexibility and competence. Outside of some slightly indiscernible vocal strength in rapidly spoken points, Atonement sounds brilliant. A French 5.1 track is also available, as are optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Universal has pieced together a handful of sharp extras for Atonement that cover most of the core necessities. Though it's not massive in quantity, these supplements get a lot accomplished in their paltry numbers:
Commentary with director Joe Wright:
Joe Wright often indulges his commentary's audience with insightful points on retrospective and literate themes in his track. He does have a few expanses of silence where you might get a little ancy to hear what he has to say. Especially when he discusses Briony, you get a lot of interesting nuances and eccentricities from this commentary. It's an interesting, introspective listen that couples with the film quite well.
Bringing the Past to Life: The Making of Atonement:
This anamorphic 26 to 27-minute documentary is another one of those shorter assembly pieces that gives ample doses of every element involved in making the film. Everyone, from Joe Wright and his cast to the production designers, are featured in candid and insightful interviews that dissect and elaborate on many intricate parts of Atonement. They discuss contingencies and inspirations, such as McGarvey's analysis on Briony's creative energy and how it was to be filmed. It's a really nice, expansive, and rather compact doc for the volume of material addressed.
From Novel To Screen: Adapting a Classic:
Though he surfaces sporadically in the other featurette, Ian McEwan is brought into the spotlight here with this 5-minute piece - which is also anamorphic. Joe Wright et al discuss the stages of adapting the novel to screen, including the problematic first draft void of the book's complete essence.
Joe Wright, in his optional commentary with the deleted scenes, makes a great comment that essentially sums up to the scenes being removed because he felt they were poorly directed. In fact, most of them just seem to be removed for pacing issues, as they would've slowed down the furious pace made so strong in the film. It's around 7 and a half minutes in non-anamorphic deleted scenes that both weaken and convolute characters at times, while also seeming to noticeably slow the pace down.
Atonement received recognition from the Academy Awards, The Golden Globes, and, more appropriately, from BAFTA as one of the pinnacle pieces of cinema from 2007. It deserves such rich praise, as it is an immensely impacting and powerful portrait of love, war, and the innocent infatuation of a young girl. Each and every performance and cinematic element achieves insurmountable resonance in Joe Wright's second and more apt foray in the period piece adaptation genre. Packed with extremely competent visual and aural qualities, as well as a decent tray of extra material, this is a very adept presentation for a genuinely striking film.
Now, I'm going to Highly Recommend this, obviously; however, as per their other Oscar-nominated pictures like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Brokeback Mountain, Universal and Focus Features seems primed for a more elaborate edition of Atonement in the future. And, thinking on a standard definition level here, the slightly waning verbal quality could use a marginal boost with such a DTS track that seems to wiggle into those more elaborate editions, as well. Then again, this quality presentation might be more than satisfactory even for substantial fans of the film. Simply, the film itself is worth revisiting a few times in this superb presentation while waiting for that next edition to come out. Either way, this disc is an easy one to talk up for a purchase.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site