The evacuation from Dunkirk.
It's very easy to get caught up in the sheer gorgeousness of Atonement (2007). There's the awesomely verdant English estate, with its mix of wild meadows and cultivated gardens; the manor house with its gleaming wood, sweeping staircases, and antiques; and of course, lots of beautiful people in beautiful clothes exchanging smoldering glances (the 1930s…really, I missed my fashion decade).
When all that loveliness disappears with the arrival of World War II—though you still get the beautiful people, just in less beautiful clothes—you're left with the tale of ruined romance and lovers separated by an overly imaginative little girl whose sense of drama overwhelms her sense of truth. Now grown up, the girl, has to contend with the legacy of her lies, trying to reconcile with the sister whose true love her lies sent to jail, and who now tries to survive war (specifically the Dunkirk evacuation) so they can at last be together. Of course at the end of the film we see that trying to undo past errors isn't as easy as one would hope, and is, perhaps, impossible.
You know, with the sheer drama of it all (not to mention the gardens and the gowns), I expected—or maybe hoped—to be swept away by this movie, but I wasn't. Instead I found myself admiring it more than loving it. As noted, it is very pretty—you could watch this movie with the sound off and still pass a very pleasant two hours (or at least I could, but then again, I think I've made my fascination with the 1930s pretty clear). Every shot is carefully composed and wrought with meaning: oh yes, look at the barrette she's putting in her hair slowly and carefully…I bet that will come up again; look, now we're seeing the same scene from a different character's perspective to show us that this movie is about point of view; oh, this scene is running backwards, so we can see how you can try to reconstruct the past but can only reconstruct memory. It's very well thought out, and the acting is solid all-around. I wasn't bored while watching it; actually, it's extremely clever (as, I'm sure, is the novel on which it's based, which I haven't read). And yet…and yet…should I have been noticing the technique so much? Why did I feel somewhat removed from it all? When it was over, I realized I hadn't cried, or even come close to it once, and for a story that is so romantic, and so tragic, that seemed strange.
Then again, maybe one of the points of the story is that all that romance really is impossible, and there's no reason to cry over something that in the end isn't true. Maybe it means that hoping for that kind of love isn't realistic and is only the stuff of novels and movies. I'm trying to get myself to believe that, because then things might be easier and I will be content.