by J.D. Roth

Kris and I watched Atonement tonight. It’s a movie about love and betrayal set in England between 1935 and 1940.

The film opens with a shot of an English manor. But panning back, we see that it’s not actually a manor, but only a dollhouse. Lined up in front of the house in meticulous order are a collection of various toy animals. Thirty seconds into the film, I paused the DVD.

“You see,” I said. “This is the kind of thing that could only happen in film. Look at that. Everything is too neat, too orderly. I hate stuff like this. The entire film’s going to be like this.”

I pressed PLAY.

Atonement unfolds slowly. But, paradoxically, things happen quickly. It’s difficult to explain unless you’ve seen the film. The cinematography is stylized, but not overtly so. Each frame is gorgeous. The composition of each shot is beautiful. So much can be revealed in short twenty-second scenes, and yet the story takes its time. The acting is nuanced. The script is perfect.

There were only three things that bugged me about this movie, and two of them would have gone completely unnoticed in any other film. (Example: In one scene, a police officer at the edge of the frame shifts in a strange way, distracting from the perfect composition. Very minor.) The third thing is a major flaw, but not a fatal one.

For twenty minutes in the middle of the film, there’s an extended scene during which one of the characters has an almost hallucinatory experience. (And maybe not “almost”.) This scene goes on far too long. Perhaps it needs to for the sake of the story, but somehow the film loses its tempo at this point.

That’s too bad, because despite my worries from the first twenty seconds, I thought Atonement was excellent. In parts, it was brilliant. The first 40 minutes (excepting that opening sequence) are almost perfect.

“I guess you can’t judge a movie by its first scene,” Kris said when the movie had ended.

“No,” I said. “I guess not.”

Postscript: I ♥ this review of the movie from Amazon: “Couldn’t understand what the British actors were saying and it jumped from one year to the next with no explanation. I had high hopes, but thought it was very mediocre.” Damn those British accents, and non-linear stories!

Updated: 05 April 2008

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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