Atonement gives off the flavor of a film based on a Booker-prize winner; post watch wiki-ing reveals that the novel (Ian McEwan) was shortlisted for the same. The Bookers like to follow a pattern, don't they? Anyhow this is a very decent film. The atonement in this story is attempted by Briony who as a young girl on the cusp of World War II commits a breach of honesty that spirals out into turmoil for her elder sister Cecilia and Cee's lover Robbie. You see, Briony wrongly accuses Robbie of being a molester and the consequences are devastating for all concerned. Cecilia and Robbie are condemned to a lifetime of austerity and waiting, while Briony is left to reflect on the implications of her action.
The chain of events is narrated in an interesting slightly non-linear manner; typically this consists of seeing an event from Briony's perspective, then returning to the scene with a more holistic view. I assume this style would have its roots in the source novel, but I have yet to verify this. Atonement is set in Britain of the late 30's and 40's where people are still being “propah” and dressing dandyishly for tea. Even little actions heighten the sense of fettered sexuality, an aspect most beautifully exploited here. Yes, things are more overt here, with Cecilia stripping to her underclothing to dive into the family pond or having an impromptu bonk in the library, but even the holding of hands and the exchange of yearning looks carries greater significance than it would in a contemporary film.
It doesn't hurt as Kiera Knightley plays Cecilia with the same pixie-like allure that Helena Bonham-Carter once brought to her roles in the period films of Merchant-Ivory and others, and unlike the silly business in those overrated Pirates of the Caribbean films, she flourishes both presence and talent here. James McAvoy as Robbie is entirely believable as he goes from fresh-faced lover to shattered wreck, without the film going too far into melodramatic dreck territory. Like I said, the feel is that of a Booker book, a good thing in this case. Sherlock Holmes fans will get a kick out of seeing his newest player Benedict Cumberbatch in a small but effective turn as a complete cad. The photography (Seamus McGarvey) is rich in a picture postcard-vein, going from stately English mansions to the battle-scarred beaches of France, even throwing in some suspiciously leery glances at war wounds.
If there is a criticism to Atonement, once could say the flow of events in the script seems “constructed” rather than growing organically. But that is really more of a design decision for the film (and the book, possibly), and should not be a deal-breaker for people interested in seeing what is on the whole a good solid romance story.