Based on Ian McEwan's celebrated novel, the narrative structure of the film begins linearly, then quickly digresses to an ever more perplexing jigsaw puzzle that gradually unravels to its pseudo-startling 'revelation' ending.
The year is 1935 and Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a troubled thirteen year old living on the pastoral country estate of her wealthy English family. Prone to exaggerations and daydreams about a career as a famous playwright, Briony also harbours a severely possessive schoolgirl's crush on the estate's gardener, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) - an attraction more age appropriately shared by Briony's older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley).
To be certain, the sexual friction between Robbie and Cecilia is growing and much to Briony's dismay. At one point Briony tests Robbie's affections for her by jumping into a lake where, without his rescue, she will surely drown. Frantic, Robbie dives into the mire and seaweed, pulling Briony from the depths before admonishing her for her unnecessary silliness.
Later, out of frustration, Robbie writes several drafts of a letter to Cecilia professing lurid eroticism. These, of course, he never intends for her viewing, and scraps in favour of a much more ambitiously platonic declaration of love. Unable to fathom the depths of Briony's crush, Robbie asks her to deliver this latter correspondence on the eve of a grand party at the estate. Instead, Briony reads the letter after Robbie has gone. Too late, Robbie realizes that the letter he has given Briony is the one full of provocative language.
That evening, Robbie and Cecilia consummate their relationship in the library. Briony, who accidentally walks in on them, mistakes the sex act as rape based on her limited understanding of the thoughts Robbie has expressed in his letter to Cecilia.
Meanwhile, it is learned that Cecilia and Briony's teenaged cousin Lola has run away. A search of the grounds leads Briony to discover Lola deep within the rushes and reeds, being raped by a stranger. Interrupting the act, Briony decides for herself that Robbie is a sexual predator and declares him to be a rapist to the police. After showing her mother Robbie's letter to Cecilia, the police concur with Briony's interpretation and Robbie is sent to prison for four years.
Robbie is released from serving his full term on the eve of England's wartime declaration against Germany, provided he immediately joins the 1st Battalion of the Royal Sussex Army Regiment. In London, Robbie and Cecilia are briefly reunited, she professing her undying love to him and her belief that he was never guilty of the crime that Briony (now played by Romola Garai) accused him. It seems Briony too has had second thoughts on the matter.
Estranged from her sister, Briony has become a nurse in St. Thomas where she endures her own silent punishment and grueling regiment of wartime duties. But a nagging question remains and one that cannot be resolved without a full atonement for her childhood speculations.
But Briony's final attempt at reconciliation with both her sister and Robbie is met with open hostility, particularly after Briony reveals that Lola's 'rapist' was Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch) - a then friend of the family who has since married Lola and therefore cannot be prosecuted under British law for the crime of rape even though Briony remains convinced that is what she witnessed in the marsh.
In Dunkirk Robbie is wounded and falls ill. And although the narrative continues along the lines that Robbie and Cecilia are eventually reunited, we quickly learn that this latter plot development is a lie - one concocted for our benefit by the now middle-aged Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) who has become a successful author in the interim since the war.
As it turns out, Robbie succumbed to septicemia in Dunkirk, while Cecilia met with her own fateful end in the Balham Station of the London Underground after a bombing blitz flooded the tunnel, killing all those who had sought refuge from the aerial bombings. During a BBC interview in praise of her latest novel, 'Atonement', Briony reveals that she is dying of vascular dementia - her last work as an author written as something of an apology to Cecilia and Robbie whom Briony now realizes she had wronged.
Filmed in and around London for authenticity, Atonement does have its moments but otherwise it seems to lose steam midway through the story and long before the final revelation. We're treated to an impressive visual palette with superb period costumes that recreate the mood and tone of pre and wartime London. But the screenplay tends to contemporizes dialogue and situations. As such, the film takes on a timely, rather than timeless, flavor that will undoubtedly date it more severely as our own time wears on.
Most engaging of the cast are the three principles that effectively make up Briony's performance; particularly Saoirse Ronan who illustrates and maintains an intense introspection and attentive clarity throughout her acting.
James McAvoy is best served in the early third of the story where his youth and diminutive looks fit comfortably into Robbie's awkward skin; his quiet desperation to fit into a more cultured world of social opportunities. As the world weary soldier with an understanding - though somewhat broken - heart - he is far less convincing.
This leaves Keira Knightley as the only train wreck amongst the cast - undeniably fun to look at but absolutely bereft of any sort of genuine commitment to her role. There are whole sequences where, quite simply, she sleepwalks through her lines, offering a clipped recitation of dialogue that is impossible to believe for even a moment of screen time. As I watched this film again I kept thinking of a stage hand just out of camera range holding up large cue cards for her to read.
Atonement was nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture, winning only one for Dario Marianelli's score; a fitting marker that gauges the film's overall importance as a work of pure artistic achievement. This isn't a bad film. It simply is not a great one.
Alliance Home Video's Blu-Ray release rectifies the issue of blown out contrast levels exhibited on its previously released DVD. Yes, Seamus McGarvey's cinematography is highly stylized, utilizing a light and almost frothy look to the pre-war sequences. On the DVD, these scenes appeared overly harsh and digital, too bright and with a loss of fine detail in background information.
On Blu-ray we get a much more satisfying visual patina that captures the essence of lazy warmth in McGarvey's palette. The wartime sequences exhibit a much more refined palette of dingy grays, bleak browns and muddy greens. On DVD, much of the wartime footage simply registered as tonal variations of flat, pasty brown. On Blu-ray we finally explore the subtleness and understated beauty of these scenes.
The audio is given a lossless DTS upgrade. While the early scenes don't really exercise the full potential of this improvement, the wartime sequences exhibit a robust sonic palette. Exploding shells, firing rockets, the flooding of the station: these sequences rock the house with a terrifying clarity. Despite the fact that zero extras have been advertised on Universal's packaging, this disc retains all of the extra features that were part of the DVD presentation, including a making of featurette, director's commentary, deleted scenes and original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)