I've put off reviewing this film for a week and a half. I'll preface everything by stating that I'm in the minority on this film, and stewing has not improved my disposition in regards to the film. On to the review...
Atonement is a film steeped in nuance. It essentially has to be because without its countless shots establishing mood director Joe Wright would be left with a short film. While these shots do add to the feel of the film, it seems as though too much screen-time is spent on shots of Kiera Knightley's face fragmented through mirrors or the like.
The events that comprise the narrative are few and routine; to expound on them would be giving away pretty much everything that happens over the course of the film. Rather than events, the story is formed by the varied perceptions of the events. More precisely, it is framed by the misperception of said events through the eyes of a precocious 13 year-old playwright, Briony Tallis as played by Saoirse Ronan. Following her once-removed version of happenings, Wright then illuminates the few things that actually happen with the retelling of events by following the characters, primarily James McAvoy's Robbie Turner and Knightley's Cecilia Tallis, leading up to and during their occurrence.
Now in the right hands with the right story, reinventing a moment through the eyes of the various characters whose actions play out in that event can be intoxicating. Sidney Lumet's recent gem Before the Devil Knows You're Dead comes to mind immediately as an instance in which such a narrative device works well. In that situation, the other characters are more complex and have more things going on in their lives at the instant in which they are happening. The same cannot be said for Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony, whose lives lack much past the class divide and ensuing complexities resultant of their differing socioeconomic status. In all fairness, this difference in class is vital to the story, for Robbie's fate is wholly determined by his presumed lack of a voice in his defense. The problem is somewhere in the neighborhood of an hour and fifteen minutes is spent unfurling what amounts to be a precious few plot points, and while a certain degree of sympathy/empathy is cultivated that cultivation could have occurred in a fraction of the time.
The second act of the film is also filled with narrative issues. Robbie's efforts to reunite with the troops from whom he was separated--and, in turn, with Cecilia--while valiant and determined are largely aimless and lacking in the requisite tension to hold the attention of the viewer. While the actors did their part to enliven their characters with enough heart to endear them to the audience, the filmmaker's inability to craft a narrative in which your yearning for the the star-crossed lovers to be back together earns the level of concern that the nuance-laden screenplay fails to achieve.
Anyone speaking on the film would be remiss to not mention the spectacular tracking shot at Dunkirk. Its scope seemed to know no bounds. Technically, the shot rivals even that of Cuarón's stunning tracking shot in Children of Men, but where that film's tracking shot is wrought with suspense, Wright's shot seems to suffer from the same lack of purpose that much of the film suffers through. Its technical excellence cannot be denied, but its place in the narrative is questionable at best, and in a film so focused on the smaller scope of a pair's undying love for one another the shot borders on superfluity.
The part of the film that does work--past the acting, which is solid, if falling just shy of being great--is the third act. Vanessa Redgrave's role as the elderly Briony enriches the film, and the ending saves the film from being entirely style over substance. Unfortunately, for the greater part of its 130 minute run-time, Atonement wallows in its obsession with its own beauty, forgoing the effort of making a film with an engaging story.