When I write about a movie it’s usually more from the viewpoint of literary criticism than coming from a mindset of a typical movie review. Reviewing is popular because it simply consists of supporting a like or dislike of a movie. That, coupled with the limitation not to give away too much of the film, inevitably leads to superficial examination and highly subjective opinion. As a result movie reviews often fail at their actual purpose- helping the reader determine if a particular movie is worth seeing. Literary criticism, OTOH, supposes that the reader is familiar with the work and attempts to examine the work for theme, subtext, and the success or failure of the artist in conveying more complex themes through less obvious methods such as metaphor. There are drawbacks in attempting to do this with film as well. Film is not literature. It has specific time constraints, its ability to impart didactic information is far more limited, and its ability to evoke emotion makes it perhaps more akin to music than writing. Yet, like all storytelling, it is available to dissection to uncover complexity which is less than obvious.
Atonement pretends to be an adult romance movie but can’t rise above its adolescent romantic triangle (which only one actual adolescent involved). The leads are competent in a sort of period drama way, but the setting is actually the years immediately prior to America’s entry into World War II and the tone is more evocative of the 19th century than the mid 20th. The story is an amalgam of cheap romance novel conventions- ill fated young lovers separated by class, a jealous sister tells a terrible lie that separates them, their undying commitment to each other in the face of years of separation, their eventual reunion, the poor are noble and the rich are selfish. It’s all pretty trite and the storytellers seem to realize it because they reach into the cliché bag for one final non-surprise. Turns out that the whole last part of the movie is just a dream! The heroes are dead and everybody that lied to tear them apart lives happily ever after! See, all that juvenile love is just crap after all. The world is a cold cruel place and then you die.
The movie is pretty and the performances are adequate. But as a whole there isn’t much there. That this got a nomination for best picture is beyond my comprehension.