2007 was a good year for movies.
How good was it? It was so good that good movies from 2007 are still being released in 2008. Evidently it was a time-defyingly, laws-of-physics-breakingly good year, that's how good it was.
Yes indeed, last year was so great it either tore a hole in the space-time continuum, propelling last year's entertainment forward to now, the future, or else the theater/studio system releases movies according to a process so inscrutable and byzantine that certain movies, even big Hollywood movies that make tens of millions of dollars, are set free in the big cities weeks, sometimes more than a month ahead -- if they're expanded here at all -- of backwards, barbarous regions of the country like the Columbia Basin, a one-horse, wide-spot-in-the-road "town" home to a mere 200,000-odd people.
Not that you could blame the studios (assuming you could buy into such a ludicrous theory as this "staggered release" idea); 37 people died in Kennewick back in '94 when they panicked and stampeded away from the Metro 4 during what appeared to be a man-eating dinosaur invasion, and we did burn that projectionist at the stake as recently as 2003 -- though in our defense, he was stealing our souls.
All that notwithstanding, I think it's pretty clear which theory is more likely. But if irreparable damage to space-time means we still get to look forward to what some people think was 2007's best movie of all, There Will Be Blood or enjoyably solid films like Atonement , then I say take that, space-time.
After an argument with Keira Knightley, a long-time friend and social superior (in pre-War England, these fine distinctions are a little murky, at least to my modern American eyes), James McAvoy writes up an apology letter and sends it to her via Saoirse Ronan, Knightley's 13-year-old sister. He wrote a number of letters, trying to get it perfect, and realizes too late he's inadvertently sent not just the wrong one, but a horrifically bad one: a foul-mouthed confession of love he wrote to blow off steam.
Disaster turns to bliss, however, when Knightley's shock opens her eyes to the fact she's in love with him, too; almost immediately afterward, Ronan, who read but didn't fully understand the letter, catches them mid-coitus. A 13-year-old boy might have reacted rather differently, but she's a little freaked out.
Always a witness, never a participant, Ronan sees something else that night -- a visiting cousin being raped by a dark figure -- and, believing McAvoy to be a sex-crazed, amoral menace, she convinces herself and the police he's the rapist, cutting short his romance with Knightley before it's had a chance to begin.
Saying even this much about the plot verges on spoiler territory, since the bulk of Atonement is action, to use the term so generously you could probably count it as a tax write-off, doesn't get rolling until it's about half over. It's deliberate, distanced, iceberg-like in that way dramas about English culture tend to be (at least a lot of the good ones), where there's not much to see above the surface, but below it, huge blocks of meaning are gliding right by, invisible to anyone who doesn't already know they're there.
Much of what it means that Knightley's rich and McAvoy is the son of a servant isn't played up or even explained, which might be part of why the movie's far less dull than a carefully paced film about misunderstandings could be. With none of the usual ham-fisted complaints about how much it blows to live in a society that tells you who it's OK to love (I myself prefer laughably unattainable Hollywood actresses -- look, Keira Knightley, I've mentioned your name several times now, what more do you want??), we're left to fill in a lot of the significance for ourselves.
This understatement works well for director Joe Wright through the first half, but once the results of Ronan's accusation play out through all their lives, the whole thing starts to drift. We don't get to know Knightley or McAvoy that well before tragedy ruins them. When their situation and the breakdown of WWII thrusts them all into nightmare, it hits home, just not enough to knock you out.
The twist might come close. Rather than being a cheat or a flimsy attempt to blow your mind hard enough to make you forget how crummy the preceding 90 minutes were -- I'm looking at you, every horror movie of the last few years except The Descent -- it actually adds another layer to everything that's happened. I wouldn't say it's excellent, but its haunted, introspective turn ties up a story that had threatened to unravel.
Even more than how hard it is to set things right after you've done wrong, Atonement is about how easy it is for a good thing to be destroyed by malice, carelessness, or plain old bad luck. Its characters won't stick with you. The moods it captures -- regret, bleakness, fragility -- those have some staying power.