Joe Wright | 118 mins | DVD | 15 / R
“The Most Nominated Film of the Year” proudly proclaims a sticker on the cover of Atonement’s newly released DVD. Well, not quite: according to IMDb, Atonement stands at 68 nominations while No Country For Old Men has made it to a whopping 108! Nonetheless, it’s received a near ridiculous amount of acclaim on its way to awards season, and now, having missed it at the cinema, I can finally offer my opinion, just before it does its best to sweep the board at tomorrow’s BAFTAs.
There are certainly a lot of things in Atonement that definitely warrant their nominations, and in many cases the award itself would not be badly placed either. James McAvoy gives a strong lead performance (he is, of course, up for Best Actor at the BAFTAs) and even more astounding is 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan as Briony, wise beyond her years as the over-imaginative girl who causes so much misery. In many ways she’s the lead character, but as she shares the role with two other, older actresses, it’s no surprise she’s up for Best Supporting Actress — she probably stands more of a chance there anyway. She’s certainly one to watch, and can next be seen in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones, again as a leading character who’ll probably be designated supporting status because she’s so young. Keira Knightley’s performance, which has earned her a Best Actress nod, is certainly good, but if she wins it’ll be the strength of the film as a whole that carries her through against such tough competition. I should also mention the ever-excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, in a role too small to receive much recognition, yet central to the plot and well played.
Elsewhere at the BAFTAs, Atonement’s up for a slew of awards I’m not especially qualified to comment on in depth: production design, costume design, make-up & hair, sound, editing… Suffice to say the film looks luscious all round. The cinematography is certainly beautiful, capturing the lazy summer days of 1935 equally as well as the tumultuous wartime vistas. Arguably the stand-out sequence in this respect is the much heralded five-minute shot of the beach at Dunkirk. It’s perhaps over-hyped by this point but is still an impressive achievement, if not in the camerawork itself then in the staging of so many consecutive set pieces without a cut.
With all this considered, Joe Wright is a strong contender for Best Director, and also Christopher Hampton for Best Adapted Screenplay. The story jumps back and forth in time, occasionally to slight confusion but always clear enough to follow. The languid first half never drags, and the second half never feels weak despite the essential mystery already being solved. I won’t give away too much here, but the ending is also effectively pulled off, and the final twists feel more natural than tricksy. I haven’t read the novel so can’t compare it to that, but by all accounts it’s a very faithful adaptation. The only thing that really bothered me was that the dates didn’t seem to add up — apparently, World War Two had begun three-and-a-half years after the summer of 1935 (more like four-and-a-bit). A couple of other dates are unclear too, but that strikes me as the main one.
To digress to general BAFTA speculation for a bit (as if I haven’t already), for the directing win, Wright has to face (amongst others) last year’s winner, Paul Greengrass, though as (to my mind) United 93 was a stronger film than The Bourne Ultimatum, I don’t see him winning it again. In both of those awards it’s up against strong Oscar favourites No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood — when we’ve got our own film to praise, I’m not sure they’ll be able to stave off Atonement too much. The same goes for Best Film. But then there’s always Best British Film. In theory, if Atonement was good enough to take Best Film then it would take this too, but that’s often not the way — in effect, it’s a chance to reward two different movies. I can’t see Eastern Promises winning, but This is England, Control and The Bourne Ultimatum are all reasonable alternatives. If Atonement wins British Film I won’t be expecting it to go on to get Best Film as well. Of course, you can never be sure.
I appreciate this review has (quite deliberately) focused on Atonement’s BAFTA chances as much as its own merits, but hopefully that has still illuminated my thoughts on the film. It’s a very strong effort from all involved, with an unusually structured but no less engaging plot, beautiful cinematography, nice direction and admirable performances. All round, it’s just about enough to warrant 2008’s second