The one exception to Atonement's visual failings is the famed five-minute tracking shot along the beach at Dunkirk during the film's World War II section. The sequence has been widely attacked (like the entire film) for the coldness of the authorial manipulation, an attack granted additional fodder by the director's admission that his reason for staging the shot was that he "just like[s] showing off." The sequence's detractors claim that, technical virtuosity aside, the shot doesn't add anything to our understanding of the film's characters and has no emotional resonance. Ed Gonzalez, for example, dismissed the sequence as "a triumph of extras casting and production design but completely devoid of emotion." These objections must be granted, except that the scene does provoke a certain emotional response, albeit one unconnected with the film's story or characters. It is instead the response triggered by a pure aesthetic pleasure. Of course, the viewer can only experience this pleasure as "pure" if, having taken in the film's prior failures, he has already given up on it. No longer entertaining legitimate hopes of experiencing a satisfying work of art, he is free to view the tracking-shot independent of its context in the film's overall scheme, enjoying it on its own autonomous merits.
If the first section of the film presents a rather compelling story marred by the director's cute visual tricks, the tracking sequence, which critic Robbie Freeling correctly notes is "completely aesthetically opposed to the rest of the film," represents precisely the reverse. Dropping the pretense of advancing the story, Wright grants us a stand-alone sequence in which, unlike the earlier sections, he is completely in control of the material. Against a thoroughly denuded color scheme (gray sky, gray sand), the camera follows Robbie and two fellow soldiers as they walk along the beach past hundreds of others who bide their time, some singing, most staring blankly, one performing gymnastic exercises on a stranded pommel horse; stopping to highlight a beached ship, a horse being shot, a Ferris wheel spinning in the very back of the screen. The only justification for the scene is that, taken alone, it is the one section of the film that, on a strictly aesthetic level, works without question. Given the strenuous efforts on the director's part at infusing the whole film with this kind of visual liftoff, efforts whose failures seem to stem from Wright's inability to develop a visual program appropriate to his material, the fact that he does succeed so thoroughly, if only once, makes the scene all the more remarkable. The Dunkirk sequence is by no means enough to salvage the film, especially given its lack of emotional connection to the rest of the work, but it succeeds in providing five minutes of visual delight in an otherwise ugly, ugly picture.