Expect subtle spoilers.
I went to see Atonement this afternoon. I was a tad disappointed.
First of all, the movie couldn't decide which story it was trying to tell. I wanted a love story. It was supposed to be a love story. But it couldn't focus on the romance. It spends reels 1-3 and 6-7 on Birony's story of guilt and atonement, while reels 4 and 5 are spent on Robbie's WWII Interlude. It spends a lot of time with Robbie in France, following him as he tries to "come home" to Cecilia, which would all be well and good if we had spent a little more time with the two of them before he went off to prison. But we didn't. We were following Birony around, because it is ultimately her story, not Robbie's or Cecilia's.
Consequently, what romance that was there wasn't really all that romantic. There was very little information given on which to base a romance. We know a little about how Robbie and Cecilia met; how she was pissed off that he went up to Cambridge at the same time she did when she was an heiress and he was the favored son of the housekeeper; how she wouldn't talk to him for years; how she thought him beneath her; but we get jack on how and why she grew to love him. There's next to no basis for the kind of romance they appear to have later on. They act like they're in love, but there's no reason given for them to actually love each other. The romance is born out of mere circumstance, making the War Interlude feel very hollow.
On a related note, the sex scene is shot like a hand-held porno. Shaky, out of focus, here an arm, there a breast. The kind of image where you're not exactly sure what you're looking at, but it sure is naughty. And no sound. This three minutes in the library is supposed to be the ultimate recognition of their love for one another, but it's utterly unromantic and made to look messy, dark, and shameful. It really upset me.
Of course, I understand why they did that. The sex had to look bad in order for little Birony to misinterpret it. Again, the story tries to split its attention between Birony's story and Robbie and Cecilia's story, and comes out the worse for it.
Fortunately, Birony's story at least has some nice drama. The first three reels (with the exception of the sex scene) were at least interesting and engaging in that way. And much of the film was very beautifully shot. There is a single shot in the War Interlude that lasts a full five minutes, weaving on a wonderfully smooth Steadicam through the British evacuation from Northern France, and there's a beautiful scene where Robbie finds himself behind the screen in a movie theatre, showing a romance movie, pining (hollowly) for his lost love.
There is a scene, just before the epilogue, that was very disorienting and confusing, based on what had happened earlier in the film, and I found myself unnecessarily confused. Turns out, there is an explanation to be had in the epilogue. The epilogue opens with an abrupt time shift that completely dropped me from the film. It took a moment to pick it back up again. The epilogue is a tearjerker ploy, but I wasn't as offended as I usually am by such devices because it was not entirely unsupported by the previous events. That confusing scene just before the epilogue turns out not to be true, and the epilogue tells us why. It was an odd scene for me because Birony's story had been told well enough for me to guess that it wasn't true before the explanatory epilogue. Still, the attempt at an emotional ending was rather forced.
Overall, the film (and whatever critic it was who described it as the most "achingly romantic film" in so-and-so a time) confuses romanticism with sorrow. There is no happiness in the film. Even Birony's concluding assertion that she finally gave Robbie and Cecilia the happiness they wanted is really quite empty, given the method by which she chose to do it.