Clocking in at 2 hours 3 minutes, this film stars James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, & Romola Garai in a drama about… what, I couldn’t really tell you. It begins by introducing “Bryony” (later played as an 18 year old by Romola Garai) as a privileged & precocious 13 year old who is just finishing her first stage play to be performed that night to welcome her returning brother. It is established that she often writes stories & we don’t know if she is truly gifted or is simply encouraged by her family. Bryony witnesses her older sister stripping down to her slip & jumping into a fountain in front of a male friend of the family. We don’t know why she is doing it, why she chooses to pop out of the fountain & stand staring at the man for some time, why the fountain appears to be 6 feet deep, or why, given the transparent & tenuous nature of her “dress” it is so shocking to see the slip without it.
The brother comes home with a new friend, so preparations are made for dinner, and suddenly we are catapulted back in time to witness the few minutes leading up to & after the fountain dipping scene from the viewpoint of the older sister Cecelia and the man (Robbie). After more development, Bryony accusing Robbie of a heinous crime; he is taken away & convicted based on her testimony. There is no maliciousness; she is simply immature & mistaken. Here the movie leaves us until 5 years later.
You would think that the opening scenes would set up a movie that follows the consequences of her actions, the development of the 3 principle characters and ultimately that there would be some form of atonement, but you would be wrong. Certain things have changed: the war is on, Cecelia is estranged from her family (being the only one who believed Robbie), Robbie is earning his freedom by joining the army, Bryony is a nurse and that is all the development we get. The rest of the film is basically people walking around so that the camera can pan around a lot at the various scenes (which are done very well). There is one long shot of McAvoy’s character walking along a beach at Dunkirk where the army is preparing to withdraw & it seems there isn’t much point in the walk but to show how much money was spent on extras. We get to see horses being shot, equipment being destroyed, a choir singing, some guy hanging off a working Ferris wheel (really, still standing AND working?!), and quite a number of other things, but you’re left with the nagging question of: what is the point?
The only character that seems to have any development is Robbie and I think that is mostly due to McAvoy’s excellent talents as an actor. Keira Knightley turns in her usual pale performance, & Romola is mostly confined to one excellent scene where a French soldier dies before her, but otherwise we don’t really get to see much of her character developing.
Then there are the time shifts. In the beginning of the film, I thought this was an interesting way to make the audience first feel some of the confusion that Bryony was feeling, and second to make us understand the true nature of the relationship between Cynthia & Robbie. This technique works once, maybe twice, but in this film it is used multiple times and it is used badly. There are only a few scenes where seeing the situation from multiple characters may warrant the use of a time jump, but what is really disconcerting is the lack of cohesiveness to the jumps. The film will follow 2 characters for a number of days or weeks, then suddenly jump back a number of weeks to follow another character without any other reference. You don't know you just jumped backwards 2 months. The timeline itself become tenuous as you are never quite sure when you are in the film until you reach a familiar scene, and once you have your bearings, you are again loosed in an unfamiliar timeline. It just became a rambling mess. It got so annoying that at the final scene, I literally said out loud, “Oh, what now?!” in utter exasperation.
This brings us to the final conclusions and possible spoilers. At the end, Bryony is an aged woman, conveniently with the same haircut so we’ll recognize her, commenting on her latest semi-autobiographical book “Atonement”, of which the film we just watched is based. When asked why she didn’t publish it sooner she replies that she didn’t see the point. She claims that her book, in fact, has no use for the reader, nothing to impart or teach or in any way make it worth publishing. It was the best scene in the whole film. I felt this character spoke exactly what I was feeling about the movie itself. I can’t see the point in watching it. It is neither happy nor sad nor informative. It’s just there, like a bump on a log. It has failed miserably at the two reasons for watching a film: to either entertain or inform.
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