Atonement (DVD)

Atonement garnered incredible amounts of critical praise upon its theatrical release, and nabbed the odd award or two as well (Golden Globe for best film, Bafta for best film, Oscar for original score). So is it any good? Well, yes it is — Atonement is easily the best British film of the past year, and truly deserves every accolade it has received. And it works just as well on DVD as it did on the big screen.

I usually can't stand Knightley, but she's fantastic here; as is McAvoy. But the real hero of Atonement is director Wright, who has managed to film what many regarded an unfilmable book. And he's shot it with a grand, sweeping style and grace that is surprising coming from a director making just his second feature film. Atonement is very literary and novel-like in its structure. The events of the first act, which is set in the English summer of 1935, are played out twice. We witness an altercation between Cecelia (Knightley) and the housekeeper's son, Robbie (McAvoy) — first from the point of view of Cecelia's sister, 13-year-old Briony (Ronan) and then from the point of view of those involved. What the audience sees as romantic tension between the two is seen by Briony as something else entirely. Later, Briony reads a note Robbie has asked her to take to Cecelia for him, and later still she witnesses a private encounter between them. Although precocious young Briony likes to think of herself as quite mature, she has a vivid imagination and has led a cossetted, privileged life, and doesn't yet fully understand the ways of the adult world. As you'd expect Briony misinterprets everything she sees, which tragically ends a budding romance and leads to Robbie being accused of a crime he didn't commit.

To say too much more would be to give away plot twists and turns that are best left to unfold on the screen, but parts of this film left me heartbroken. Oh, what joyous change it was to be so moved by a film after so many months of releases that promised us plenty but left us mostly numb. And it's a feast for the eyes as well as the heart. Atonement features some beautiful cinematography from Seamus McGarvey, especially that amazing much talked about five-minute single tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk, and one of the most beautiful and erotic sex scenes ever committed to film — in which the participants are fully clothed. On the acting front, the pouty Ms Knightley is less annoying than usual; rather likeable, actually, in her most grown-up role to date. This is only the second film in which I've actually enjoyed her performance (the first was Bend It Like Beckham). McAvoy, who reminds me so much of a young Ewan McGregor, once again proves why his star is on the ascendent. This, along with The Last King of Scotland, must have surely put him square in Hollywood's sights. And also in Hollywood's sights by now must be novellist McEwan, who must be more than pleased with Hampton's adaptation of his work and Wright's transformation to the screen. This magnificent, astounding and engaging work is a stunning success on every level.

EXTRAS **** A thorough selection. There are 7 deleted scenes, 2 featurettes (a 26-minute "making of" and a look at how the novel was brought to the screen) and a director's commentary.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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