Director/Studio: Joe Wright / Focus Features
10 Word Review: Far smarter than the sweeping romantic epic you're probably expecting.
Best Thing About It: In a dead heat, the absolutely spectacular visuals (Seamus McGarvey's camera is so deceptive and tricky, it's astounding) get edged out by the strength of the layered storytelling. Credit goes to novelist Ian McEwan and adapter Christopher Hampton for that. It's funny, because the backlash against the film (something that began well before most of the backlashers even saw the movie) centers on the fact that it's so predictable for the presumptive Oscar front-runner to be this grand romantic epic in the vein of The English Patient. The thing is, if you look at Atonement even a little closely, you realize it's really not that, at all. The layers-upon-layers of storytelling and deception and self-deluded characters and guilt-ridden fantasies creates a rich and completely satisfying story that you get to keep unraveling even after you've left the theater. Seriously, this is so much more than your average costume drama.
Worst Thing About It: There's at least one scene where a visual metaphor is rendered so inelegantly that you can't help but lose a smidge of respect for the filmmakers. We get it: she's trying to wash the blood off her hands! Stop lingering on the close-up so long that we can describe her cuticles from memory!
Best Performance: Tough call: everybody's good, and I especially want to give props to Romola Garai, who I've liked for a long time and who was my favorite of the three actresses who played Briony (Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave come to play as well), but James McAvoy was the best of the bunch. Every film he makes, he gets better and more assured; here, the story leaves so much of his character up to him to create, and he does, through small gestures and a handful of tough emotional moments. Every time you think the story is going to float away with the pretty faces sighing longingly at each other, he cuts through the gauze with a shot of raw emotion and you're back on the ground.
Oscar Prospects: After leading the pack in Golden Globe nominations, I'd say it's still among the front-runners, if not the film to beat. The backlash remains strong, however, but for now it's a contender for all the big awards, McAvoy, Ronan, Kiera Knightley, Dario Marianelli's score, and one would hope the cinematography, costumes, and art direction. It'll deserve them all.