Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Most of the advertisements in mainstream media have been dubbing this the most "romantic love story since Titanic," but I did not find it as romantic as it is dull. There is not much chemistry between the leading couple and the style of filmmaking does not assist the bland screenplay much by its erratic and unusual camera focuses.
There is nothing more thirteen year old Briony (Saorise Ronan) loves more than to make up stories that she cannot seem to get anyone else in the house to reenact with her. The latest work is one of romance and adventure and of little interest to the rest of the children in the house, consisting of a pair of unruly twins and redheaded Lola (Juno Temple). When her attempts to involve them come to naught, Briony is forced to take a greater interest in what is transpiring about her, namely the budding attraction between her older sister Celia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy). Most of their interludes are fraught with her ignoring him, or violent quarrels that end in one or other storming off to the far end of the house. From Briony's perspective, their relationship is tempestuous and hateful at best, but in reality tension has been building between them for some time.
Celia longs for something different than her ordinary humdrum existence and the seemingly endless presence of her brother (Patrick Kennedy) and his friend, Paul (Benedict Cumberbatch). Robbie is the only interesting thing about the house. After one of their customary quarrels, he pens her an apology and then places another letter into the envelope by mistake, entrusting Briony to deliver it to its recipient, but along the way she reads what is written there, and this causes her to make disastrous judgments that threaten to tear the young lovers apart forever. This incident follows Briony (Romola Garai) through the years as she seeks to make atonement for her mistake. If I could sum this film up into a single word it would be "boring." Since it does have an impressive cast list and is based on a rather popular novel by Ian McEwan, I had reasonably high hopes for it, but the manner in which the project is approached is so insipid and passionless that it comes across as unemotional at best and exceedingly dull at worst.
I think what ruins the film's flow is the peculiar way in which it was filmed. First, we see an incident from Briony's perspective and then without indication, the film backtracks to show what actually happened with Celia and Robbie. The film is sometimes out of focus, or shooting either at an extreme close up or a distant wide shot. When Atonement is good, it is excellent, but after the first half hour, we have another hour of scenes of Robbie wandering around through Europe, bloodstained, stumbling through a battlefield littered with bodies, etc. I actually fast-forwarded a good twenty minutes of it waiting for something to happen. Plus, the ending is truly depressing. There is a reasonable amount of offensive content present. The letter Robbie mistakenly places in the envelope is a dirty one, and the camera focuses in on the word c**t, leading Briony to believe that Robbie must be a "sex maniac" to write such filthy things. She stumbles across a man having sex with Lola in the woods; the camera catches a shot of his bare backside before she drops the flashlight and he runs off. Briony accuses Robbie of this crime, and the retaliations haunt her life from that moment forward. More troubling is the several minute long sex scene between Celia and Robbie in the library; there is no nudity, but lots of panting and movement.
Dead bodies riddled with bullet wounds line the beach. Horses unable to be taken to safety are being shot point-blank in the forehead; we see them fall dead into the sand. Briony as an adult works with a lot of injured soldiers, some of them with gruesome wounds. British profanities are present, along with a dozen f-words and three abuses of Jesus' name. The content might have taken a back seat to the story if only we had believed in the romance more. I never saw any indication that Robbie and Celia loved one another before their impromptu tryst in the library, and therefore it was difficult for me to accept as something of a doomed love affair.