Lowdown: A child's mistake (?) ruins the lives of those around her, as well as hers.
Keira Knightley and the team that brought us Pride and Prejudice are back with a vengeance in Atonement.
Keira belongs to a high class English family living in a mansion with servants and all just a few years before the breaking of the Second World War. We're told she went to Cambridge together with a similarly aged servant boy, whose studies were financed by Knightley's father. The two do not seem to be getting along, though.
Keira also has a young teenage sister who's a bit on the jealous side yet routinely fails to attract the adult attention she craves. One day, this younger sister - who, by the way, is actually the lead role in the film despite all the Knightley publicity - sees a strange incident involving the two Cambridge graduates. She immediately assigns sexual interpretations to what she saw, and at first the movie pushes us to think so too; a few minutes later the movie takes us back Rashomon style to show us the way things looked like from Knightley and the servant's point of view, and we see how wrong the initial interpretation was.
One mistake follows another. The servant writes a letter of apology to Knightley but ends up sending the wrong letter; then the little girl sees someone raping a girl and accuses the servant, just as we learn that Knightley and said servant are lovers; and the combination of it all, plus the class difference which just invites the servant to be the eternal victim, ends up sending him to jail for a crime he did not commit.
By now I have covered roughly half of this boringly slow event called Atonement. The next thing we know, war has already broken, the servant is fighting his way to Dunkirk, Keira has disengaged from her family to become a nurse, and the question that looms in the air is whether the two will manage to fight through the hurdles and live as lovers. Plus whether the little girl can compensate for her mistake. Plus whether the mistake was intentional or not.
There is much that is wrong with Atonement. For a start, the plot doesn't really hold itself up: it is rather tedious, and the chain of events that lead to the lovers' tragic separation is rather thin; one does not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to smell the fishiness of the incrimination that took place. The focus on Dunkirk is also weird; other than an opportunity to provide the viewer with some lavish war scenes, there is nothing particularly unique about Dunkirk in the context of the film.
The worst thing about Atonement, though, is that it tries to hide the above mentioned deficiencies with a stupidly artificially thick layer of sophistication. I have already mentioned the showing of a key scene from several perspectives; it doesn't happen once but rather several times during the film, and in some of the cases we are shown very different things to what we've seen before (as in, showing us that what we have seen before was a figment of a character's imagination, or wishful thinking). It's overused, it calls out "look at me, I'm so sophisticated I can make a film with multiple angles", and it feels as if the director is trying way too hard to cheat us and show us how superior he is to us because he knows how the story ends.
Add cinematography and editing that calls too much attention for itself, again mostly for pure show off purposes, and you end up with a film you could have done without.
Best & worst scene: A lengthy sweep across the beach at Dunkirk calls way too much attention to itself but also shows some intensive vistas such as the shooting of horses so they won't fall to German hands.
Overall: If one was looking for a fine example of the corruptive way in which films are over-hyped in order to promote box office sales, one does not need to look any further than Atonement. For a film that was described as a film made for an Academy Award, Atonement is made of awfully mediocre material.
2.5 out of 5 stars.