Ian McEwan is one of the world's most respected and talented novelists, and 'Atonement' is arguably his finest work to date, a brilliantly written, deeply romantic saga spanning multiple eras and featuring one of the most inspired and devastating denouements in literary history. In addition to telling its affecting story, the book is a love letter to the craft of writing, and shows the power words can wield. Its complex narrative, told from a variety of perspectives, holds the reader spellbound, but translating McEwan's artful prose into visual terms and creating a cohesive, linear script would prove a daunting task. Yet director Joe Wright ('Pride & Prejudice') and screenwriter Christopher Hampton persevered, fashioning a stunning adaptation that remains remarkably faithful to McEwan's original. Rarely do films live up to the novels upon which they're based, but 'Atonement' comes closer than most, and stands as a sumptuous, compelling portrait of thwarted love, innocence gone awry, false perception, and the struggle to make amends for past sins. It's a beautifully constructed, often gut-wrenching piece of cinema, brimming with both style and substance.
To say this movie gets to me is an understatement. I've now seen 'Atonement' three times, and with each viewing my appreciation for its artistry increases and my emotional response to its story and characters intensifies. Its poetic tone captures the novel's essence, and the many affecting beats and subtle moments littered throughout – two hands mingling beneath a table, a look of longing, a gentle expression of friendship – enjoy a lovely resonance. At times, the tenderness and pain on display are almost unbearable, but Wright and his accomplished cast never let the tale's raw emotion lapse into maudlin sentimentality. Some may find the film manipulative, too preciously structured, or even a bit of a cheat, but for those who appreciate the art of storytelling and struggles of the human spirit, 'Atonement' is a profoundly moving experience.
The time is summer, 1935; the place, the sprawling estate of the Tallis family in the English countryside. Impressionable, 13-year-old Briony, an aspiring writer desperate to understand adult passions and motivations and be part of the grown-up world, witnesses from afar a heated confrontation between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), son of the family cook. The episode disturbs her, yet when she later reads a sexually charged note from Robbie to Cecilia, then catches the two in a compromising tryst, her fertile imagination runs wild. Though she can't fully comprehend the emotions coursing through her (or what is transpiring between Robbie and Cecilia), Briony turns on Robbie, whom she's loved as a brother for years, and her false interpretation of his motives leads her to believe him guilty of a heinous act, which incites a steely-eyed accusation and sets in motion a tragic chain of events that will irrevocably alter all three of their lives.
Playwright Lillian Hellman explored the dire ramifications of an adolescent lie in 'The Children's Hour,' and though similarities exist between that masterwork and 'Atonement,' McEwan further muddies the waters, examining the role subjectivity plays in one's determination of an event's veracity. Unlike the evil child in Hellman's play, Briony doesn't methodically plot to cause harm. Instead, her youth, naiveté, and inflated sense of her own maturity and importance impair her perception, leading her to draw unfounded conclusions, which she carries to drastic lengths. As 'Atonement' moves from its powerful, suspenseful first act to the broader World War II setting of its second, the now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) realizes the suffering she's caused and the weight of its impact, and tries to make amends. Yet bitterness, shame, and a country in turmoil make her atonement difficult and uncertain, as the lives and happiness of Cecilia and Robbie hang in the balance.
If the story of 'Atonement' doesn't make you weep, then its composition and beauty surely will. Wright adopts a more sweeping, epic tone for the film's second half, but never abandons the intimacy that's such an integral part of the piece. As a result, emotional intensity becomes heightened and we can zero in on tiny character tics even as the canvas expands. He also deftly balances the material's talky nature with a fluid camera and creative editing, so the pace rarely drags. 'Atonement' may be elegant, but it's far from stuffy, and its contemporary edge comes to the fore in a magnificent five-and-a-half-minute, continuous Steadicam shot on the shores of Dunkirk, the scene of Britain's embarrassing retreat. This breathtaking sequence, a triumph of logistics and timing, acutely captures the circus-like atmosphere, chaos, turmoil, and desperation that defined this historical event. Wright also stunningly employs a clip from Marcel Carné's classic film 'Quai des brumes' ('Port of Shadows') to heartbreaking advantage, then later twists the knife with well-integrated newsreel footage of doomed British soldiers.
Even a film as beautiful as 'Atonement' cannot rely on images alone, and thankfully, the performances match the outstanding visuals. McAvoy is a superb actor, and whether he's firing on all cylinders or silently conveying volumes of emotion with his liquid eyes, he's a riveting screen presence and easily carries the weight of this heavy film on his slight shoulders. Knightley was born to play Cecilia, and her refreshingly natural portrayal dilutes any stylized elements of the movie's romance. Together, their passionate chemistry helps make 'Atonement' one of the great love stories of our time. But as good as they are, McAvoy and Knightley must share the spotlight with the Oscar-nominated wunderkind Ronan, whose mature-beyond-her-years, astonishingly intuitive turn as the young Briony sets the film's uneasy tone. Garai picks up where Ronan leaves off, and the luminous Vanessa Redgrave puts her indelible stamp on the character in a mesmerizing coda.
'Atonement' justly received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Score. (Ignoring Wright seems a crime, but hopefully the Academy can atone for that flagrant sin in the years to come.) Those up to the challenge will reap many rewards from this impeccably mounted production, which stimulates the mind, heart, and senses like few other films of the decade. Watch it once, then watch it again, and savor the treasures buried within.
'Atonement' arrives on Blu-ray sporting the same dazzling transfer as its HD-DVD counterpart, a luscious rendering that fully immerses us in the period atmosphere while maintaining a striking contemporary look. Hints of grain lend the image a lovely warmth without sacrificing the dimensionality that's such a vital element of high-def presentations. Clarity is superb; fine details exhibit marvelous texture and presence, and even soft focus scenes remain well defined. Consistently strong contrast enlivens the picture, with a gorgeous silhouette of Knightley on the coastline at sunset providing perhaps the most striking evidence of balance and depth. Whites can run a little hot, but the occasional prevailing brightness seems an intentional directorial choice, emphasizing the steamy weather and steamy emotions that fuel the story's engine. Blacks are deep and rich, but even during dark scenes, detail levels remain high. Colors often burst forth with a faintly muted lushness – Cecilia's ravishing green gown, her red lipstick, McAvoy's pale blue eyes, the pastel suits of Leon and Paul, and manicured landscaping of the Tallis estate all make a bold statement, but never overwhelm the palette or steal focus from the narrative. Fleshtones stay true as well, accurately rendering both the pale skin of McAvoy and Ronan, and Knightley's more sun-kissed complexion.
No blemishes mar the glorious source material, allowing for total immersion in the story, and digital noise is absent even during the darkest scenes. The transfer remains free of banding, edge enhancement, and other distractions, never compromising the beauty of this meticulous production. Kudos to Universal for this exceptional effort, which makes 'Atonement' feel more vital, immediate, and powerful than ever before.
The big news here is Universal's decision to upgrade the lossy Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track that graced the HD-DVD to the far superior DTS-HD Master Audio format, thereby erasing the major blot on the previous release's résumé. The noteworthy switch makes the film's surprisingly active audio at last sound like it should – vibrant, lifelike, and all-consuming – and improves the viewing experience by leaps and bounds.
From the opening frames, sound plays a major role in 'Atonement,' from the rustling of sheets of paper and the buzzing of a bee to the delicate ticking of a clock, whirring of a fan, and flick of a lighter. All are marvelously crisp and distinct, yet stay within the boundaries of the well-balanced mix, which enjoys wonderful purity of tone. Ambient atmospherics delicately dance across the rears, and first-rate front channel separation adds welcome dimension to more intimate scenes. Solid bass frequencies come into play during the Dunkirk sequence, providing some necessary weight, and dialogue is always properly prioritized, so nary a word is missed. (Occasionally the accents get a bit thick, garbling a few lines, but the track is not to blame.)
One of the great joys of 'Atonement' is its inventive, Oscar-winning music score by Dario Marianelli, incorporating the rhythmic tap-tap-tapping of typewriter keys into its melodic, highly romantic themes. The percussive influences provide a driving, pulsating urgency to the story, punctuating the drama and ramping up tension, and the lossless track honors this captivating work of art well. Superior fidelity and depth of tone heighten the emotional pull of the piece, especially as the music gently bleeds to the rear speakers and swirls about the sound field. An operatic recording early in the film tests the limits of the track's dynamic range, and it passes with flying colors.
The anemic HD-DVD audio was a big disappointment, and the righting of that ship makes this Blu-ray edition worthy of an upgrade for those who want to fully experience this masterful piece of filmmaking.
The same supplemental package from the HD-DVD has been ported over to this Blu-ray disc, with a couple of gimmicky format-specific exceptions (see the HD Exclusives section below). Slim offerings, but enough to satisfy fans. Be sure and check out at least a portion of the excellent audio commentary.
A brilliant adaptation of an unforgettable novel, 'Atonement' satisfies both those familiar with Ian McEwan's multifaceted story and those discovering it for the first time. Joe Wright's intimate epic overflows with emotion, but keeps sentimentality at bay, and the director's inventive style heightens the intensity of this sumptuous production. Though it took almost two years for Universal to transfer this Best Picture nominee from HD-DVD to Blu-ray, the finished product is worth the wait, featuring superbly upgraded lossless audio that makes double-dipping a must for fans. The high-def picture remains as clear and lush as always, and while the extras could be more comprehensive, what's included makes the grade. 'Atonement' may not be everyone's cup of tea, but this incisive, artistic, deeply moving motion picture yields tremendous rewards and comes highly, highly recommended.