Joe Wright's "Atonement" is a sophisticated, gorgeous screen tragedy that's convincingly propelled by the destructive choices in life. Here, the bad decisions don't easily wash away overnight, they tragically snowball over the course of a lifetime, slowly but surely destroying everything in their path.
It's England on the brink of WWII, and on an isolated estate young Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is nursing a crush on the maid's son, Robbie (James McAvoy). A literate, inventive pre-teen, Briony is flattened when she discovers Robbie is attracted to her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), a stately woman who returns the affection tenfold. With her heart broken, Briony bears false witness against Robbie during an unusual sexual situation, punishing the young man all the way to prison and soon the front lines of war. When years pass and Briony finds herself a nurse (now played by Romola Garai), the burden of guilt proves to be overwhelming, leaving her with no other choice but to seek out the lovers and make amends.
In 2005's "Pride and Prejudice," director Wright injected an exhilarating verve back into the dead zone of British costume dramas. It was a divine affair, marked by a fascination with environmental splendor and Wright's ability to challenge the material past its corset-tight demands. "Atonement" is an even stronger picture, with Wright demonstrating the confidence of a seasoned pro, shuffling through this twisted tale of deception and anguish with tip-top timing and shattering displays of directorial ingenuity.
Where "Pride" was a Vaseline-smeared romantic fable, "Atonement" (adapted from Ian McEwan's novel) is a dirge for love. Through the application of constantly rotating POVs and disorientating time-jumps, Wright seizes the story from different angles, presenting the viewer the blossoming love between Robbie and Cecelia, but also the pursed-lip, prepubescent rage of Briony (she's Patty McCormack with a cutthroat accent) as she fails to contain herself when the opportunity for Robbie's banishment arrives. There's little in the way of tenderness here; "Atonement" is directed more toward a procedural structure, detonating a dramatic bomb and counting all the casualties.
Using Kubrickian camera constructs, "Atonement" is a far more stunningly crafted film than "Pride." It's certainly chillier as well, playing with ideas of icy visual symmetry, nearly reaching exhilarating rock opera proportions. Since the story is rather basic in terms of character arcs, Wright spends enormous amounts of time dreaming up a rich visual scheme for the film, eventually stumbling into bravura one-take experimentations. One standout captures the massive evacuation of Dunkirk in a five-minute single shot that snipers the film's energy, but nonetheless remains a searing portrait of drunken war-time insanity, sharply echoing the mental deterioration of Robbie as his hopes for safe passage from combat are quickly ripped from his hands through a crushing display of disarray and madness.
Frosted with a soft focus haze to best embellish the time and place, the AVC encoded image (1.85:1 aspect ratio) on this Blu-ray captures the striking cinematographic intent with near perfection. Sustaining the evocative stance set early by the production, the image is filled with warm daylight ambiance and lush estate splendor, with colors retaining their vivid hues. Foreboding shadow detail is nicely cared for, providing needed screen tension without eating away visual information. Detail is superb throughout, richly exploring the various faces and period textures that fill Wright's frame, from the shine of Briony's facial mole to the pulp of the typewriter paper. Skintones are correct and inviting as well.
The DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix here matches the visual elements seamlessly, taking Wright's percussive tempo lead and filling the listening experience with a stunningly crisp musical odyssey. The soundtrack is plump and eager, carrying the viewer through the film with pronounced turns of fate, keeping the event afloat. Dialogue is clean and easily discernable, even during some of the more violent passages of the film. War sequences provide an expected jolt, with strong LFE response to explosive battlefield action. Atmospherics are potent, particularly when exploring the English countryside and its various animal and insect inhabitants. French and Spanish DTS tracks are also available.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Joe Wright can be wildly informative if the listener has the patience to sit through the filmmaker's somewhat dry speaking style, with occasional gaps in the conversation. Wright on location challenges, casting, and the staging of the Dunkirk sequence is where the gold can be found, with the director offering honest reflection on his picture. Also of interest is to hear Wright's take on adapting the novel to film and the challenges that came along with it, which left the filmmaker extremely protective of the source material. This is terrific stuff when Wright buckles down and delivers the goods.
"Bringing the Past to Life: The Making of 'Atonement'" (26:53) is a BTS featurette made for pay cable broadcast that boils down the vast production experience into a tidy mini-documentary. Interviews with cast and crew illuminate the creative process, but the best stuff is saved for the on-set footage, showing off how the more extravagant shots were pulled off.
"Deleted Scenes" (7:33) were generally cut for pacing reasons, and it shows throughout these glimpses of dumped footage -- proper moments of characterization for sure, but often redundant information. They can be viewed with or without commentary from Wright.
"From Novel to Screen: Adapting a Classic" (5:04) chats up the troubles of complex novel-to-screen leaps, with Wright explaining his approach to this picture. Author Ian McEwan appears to lend his thoughts on the film, also discussing his role as a producer.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Once the elder Briony steps back into the picture, "Atonement" slides comfortably into dreamy passages, addressing her guilt and desire to mend bridges with Cecilia and Robbie. This, of course, is punctuated with a sucker punch of a conclusion that rattles the senses. It's the dollop of heartache on top of a luxurious cinematic cake, furthering Wright's position as one of the more exciting filmmakers out there today.