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DVD Review: Atonement
MrOodles   |  

Atonement DVDAtonement
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn, Harriet Walter
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: March 18, 2008

I just had a chance to spend about three hours conversing with Joe Wright about his latest release, Atonement. I don’t blame him. After spending two and half years doing anything, you’d have to be a dullard to devote less than ninety minutes talking about it.

Ok, so, I do not know, nor have I ever met Joe Wright. What I actually did was listen to his director commentary of Atonement and the subsequent commentary of the deleted scenes on the DVD. I give him props for stirring up all of that commentary. When you direct a film that gets more award nominations than God, you tend to get burnt out on talking about it.

Our primary heroine is Briony Tallis (played very well by Saoirse Ronan), who we are introduced to at the tender age of thirteen. She lives in a doll house (or is it a mansion?) with her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). The grounds of this estate are kept by the boyishly handsome Robbie (James McAvoy). Briony is an aspiring playwright with an astute vocab and even better imagination. Her imagination and fascination with sexuality act as the catalyst for the plot.

One afternoon, Briony witnesses her sister climb out of a fountain in a wet undergarment that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Immediately, Briony suspects something. When the scene is redone from Robbie’s point of view (a refreshing tactic used throughout the film), we find that Cecilia was retrieving a vase that Robbie broke. After the spat, Robbie writes a formal letter of apology to Cecilia, but mistakenly sends a more “anatomically” driven letter meant for his eyes only. Even worse, he makes Briony the messenger, and she promptly reads it. Shortly thereafter, she walks in on Cecilia thanking Robbie for the letter in an equally anatomical fashion. Briony immediately misconstrues the scenario and feeds Robbie to the bobbies. It is at this point when the writing breaks down and Wright is given free reign over the film for Robbie’s involvement in WWII.

What I appreciate about Wright is his lack of ego. Throughout his commentary, he points out moments in the movie (e.g. Briony’s confession, the search for the twins, piles of dead school girls) where he is unsure of his direction. This is especially refreshing to hear. Many commentaries are either used to defend a movie or bask in the glory of a film’s greatness. At one point, Wright admits to post-rationalizing his decisions because some are made based on intuition rather than intellect. Any artist knows this is part of the process, but few will own up to it. Particular insights include Wright’s shots of actors’ hands as a directorial signature, the use of Lee Miller photographs to capture the time period, telling James McAvoy to “play this scene with a hard-on,” and pointing out all of the digital effects in the movie (I know I missed a few). He has also come up with a nickname for himself, but that isn’t revealed until the credits roll.

Of particular interest during the film and deleted scene commentaries are Wright’s thoughts on boring moments in the film. Anyone who had my ear after seeing the movie knows I found it a bit boring. It seems that Wright and the suits and the test audiences and the real audiences had similar concerns. In the deleted scene commentary he remarks, “I think the worst thing you can do is bore an audience.” Your concerns are well merited, Joe. While the first act of the movie doesn’t suffer from boring moments, the second act is rife with them. It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint the reason, and the Academy likely had the same trouble rationalizing, thus the nominations. Ultimately, the novel was simply too difficult to adapt to the screen. Wright comments on certain effects working better on the page and the troubles in adapting characters. Not including the origins of Robbie and Celia’s love is certainly a questionable decision that hurts the film in later scenes. It seems that adaptor Christopher Hampton wasn’t up to the task. And though Wright and talented cinematographer Seamus McGarvey masterfully frame the entire experience, something in the pacing is lost as a result, and the movie becomes a long Saturday trip to the art museum. It’s gorgeous to be sure, but it’s also very dull.

Of course, I can’t give James McAvoy a pass on this one. Mr. Wright speaks volumes on the difficulties of pruning the uninteresting and rotten from the intriguing and ripe. Why then, Mr. Wright, is McAvoy in the final version of this movie? There are two instances in the film where McAvoy doesn’t provoke yawns: 1) His character’s “fictional” drilling of Briony and 2) His character’s flashback of saving Briony. The rest is painful at every stretch. I know he can act. The Last King of Scotland is proof enough of that. I also know that Wright can direct actors. Pride and Prejudice and every other performance in Atonement is proof of that. So where did Robbie get lost in this movie? I’m not exactly sure. Maybe Wright secretly lusts after Keira Knightley and so found ample time to work on her”¦.errr”¦.with her on the role. Not much to blame on him there. If that is the case, then I am terribly shocked and disturbed by Saoirse Ronan’s masterful performance of the 13-year-old Briony. Such a scandal probably cost the young girl an Oscar nomination. I believe I will always be left to wonder what this movie would have been if Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy — Matthew MacFadyen — had been kept on to play Robbie instead of Mr. McAvoy. In his defense, McAvoy is charged with the difficult task of making us believe his character is in love with Celia when said love is formed during events that take place before the course of the film. However, you would have to conversely ignore the fact that Knightley suitably makes us believe she’s in love with Robbie.

The DVD also contains two mini-documentaries on making a period piece and adapting a novel to a screenplay. These are standard faire and don’t really add anything special to the DVD. I would have personally enjoyed a short piece about the film’s score. There are so many repeating themes and pieces that highlight a certain character or struggle that the score demands a second look. It would have been cool to see a guy sitting in the percussion section of an orchestra playing a typewriter. It’s a shame that Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli didn’t get the face time he deserved.

Purchasing this DVD falls on a matter of tastes. The Pride and Prejudice DVD that Focus put out had far more material, but this DVD seems a touch more academic. Indeed, aspiring film students would be right to pick this one up as Joe Wright is a talented filmmaker who hasn’t yet lost his honesty or modesty. There is a lot to learn from him. There is also an excellent insight into the thought of happy endings: one must be vigilantly driven, or be handsomely rewarded through the noble self sacrifice of another to achieve a seemingly futile outcome. Happy endings, then, are something that come through strength and with a heavy price — not weak cop outs in storytelling. This makes Atonement another great example of why the film industry so often and so closely mimics the seedy masso-therapy underworld.


  1. Good review. I like Joe Wright a lot. I look forward to hearing his commentary.

    Comment by Jerry — March 17, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  2. Why is this on here? geeks of doom?

    This movie isn’t l337

    Comment by sir jorge — March 17, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  3. @sir jorge

    Hell yeah it is! That 5 1/2 minute tracking shot is one of the l337357 things ever put on film.

    Comment by Dave3 — March 17, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  4. I love that tracking shot!!!!

    Comment by Jerry — March 17, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

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