It goes without saying that every movie deserves to be watched all the way to the end for a proper apraisal, but only a few actually require it. If you saw even the trailer for "Transformers" (or to use an example that DIDN'T suck, "300,") you essentially saw the movie, and no real profound surprises were going to be had. "Atonement," on the other hand, DEMANDS that you get all the way to the very end and then chew on it for awhile; as it's eventual "wrapup" serves as a form of highly-literate "gotcha!" as to why the film starts out so seemingly startlingly typical and derrivative.
A period costume drama, the first act occupies the innevitable Sprawling British Country Estate, occupied by the innevitable Stuffy Rich Folks and their innevitable Jolly Lower-Class Servants. Kiera Knightley is, innevitably, the Eldest Unmarried Daughter of the house; innevitably lusted-after in secret by James McAvoy's handsome but cut-off-from-her-by-the-class-system Servant Boy (how'd you guess???) Also on hand are Saoirse Ronan as Briony, the thirteen year old younger sister of the house who is, innevitably, a spooky, introverted troublemaker because... well, because in movies like this Sprawling British Country Estates all come equipped with snooping, scheming Spooky Kids to serve as walking symbols of how the pastel faux-innocence of the time concealed dark truths made darker by The Repressions Of The Time.
"Modern" films (and books) seeking to adopt the style of genuine period melodrama innevitably (okay, I'll stop it with that, you get the point by now) grab some sort of seemingly incongruous "attention-getter" story detail in order to "say something" about our pop-cultural learned-memories of the time. Post-modern racial awareness or 20/20 historical hindsight are the old standbys, but here it comes down to naughty language: Servant Boy fires off a suitably drippy mash note to Eldest Unmarried Daughter, only to realize too late that he's accidentally sent her another bit of writing - a rather to-the-point celebration of her more... "tangible" attributes - "And THAT'S how Instant Messenger Flirting was invented!" would make a great alternate ending - that was supposed to be just for him. Do-it-yourself pornography? My, but isn't he resourceful...
Lucky for Servant Boy, it turns out Eldest Unmarried Daughter is way into that sort of thing, and the two of them are promptly going at it in that very proper Costume Melodrama way where they could either be very discreetly making love or very aggressively alinging furniture with the wall. Unlucky for Servant Boy, Briony both reads the note and sees the act, leading her to flip her lid and (following an unrelated bit of profound unpleasantness) accuse Servant Boy of a heinous act that gets him bounced from the scene in a dramatic (and, yes, innevitable) Harsh Realization Of The Realities Of The Class System - because after all what's a walking-symbol-of-how-the-pastel-faux-innocence-of the-time-concealed-dark-truths-made darker-by-The-Repressions-Of-The-Time SUPPOSED to do?
Semi-lucky(er) for Servant Boy, he's doing his time in a "modern" period costume drama, which can only mean that World War II breaks out not long after and soon he's trekking across battle-scarred France trying to get back to Eldest Unmarried Daughter. Meanwhile, Briony has reached adulthood and, just now figuring out that she really screwed the pooch on this one, is seeking the Atonement of the title.
So, basically, there's a lot of the expected Masterpiece Theater/Merchant-Ivory schlock to wade through - none of it unpleasant but none of it especially unique - en-route to a couple of last minute reality-warping shifts that serve to explain WHY everything has seemed so maddeningly akin to a cliche-ridden Book Club offering... and will be regarded by audiences either as brilliantly devious or inexplicably cruel. I won't give the reveal away (only those with a really keen eye and ear will be able to figure it out ahead of time) but it's quite a thing. And while it doesn't explain away every little narrative sin onhand (at least one major surprise is telegraphed embarassingly early) it's probably the cleverest way for a period piece to write itself a license to indulge in near-camp melodramatics.
Coming to the rescue otherwise is the cast, the expected mix of seasoned British character players (hey, look! Brenda Blethyn!) and rising stars chasing period-piece street-cred (next up for McAvoy: Big Matrix-ish actioner "Wanted" with Angelina Jolie, right on schedule.) For what it's worth, Knightley is better here than she was in "Pride & Prejudice," but I still think she's being incorrectly typecast in these films because of her look and accent. Her most interesting turn so far was in "Domino," though given how hugely misunderstood THAT was it's unsuprising she's not doing more like it.
FINAL RATING: 7/10