starring Saoirse Ronan, Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave
written by Christopher Hampton and directed by Joe Wright
rated R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.

Briony Tallis (Ronan) lives a happy but sheltered life with her parents and older sister, Cecilia (Knightley), on a large country estate in the mid-1930s. At 13, she is an aspiring writer with a mild crush on Robbie (McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son. On an unusually hot and boring afternoon, the buzzing of a trapped bee draws Briony to the window where she witnesses an exchange between Robbie and her sister that she doesn’t understand. Her misunderstanding is compounded by further confusions throughout the afternoon and evening, and Briony forms a very distorted picture of what is going on. When a horrible crime is committed that night, Briony confidently points to Robbie as the perpetrator. This is, of course, a mistake, but Briony has a lot of growing up to do before she can understand exactly what happened that day.

Four years later, Europe is at war and the British army is in full retreat across France towards Dunkirk. Robbie is with them. Back home, Cecilia and her family have disowned each other and she waits anxiously in London for Robbie’s return, working as a nurse. Though Cecilia doesn’t know it, Briony has also come to London and begun her nurse’s training as a sort of penance for her childish mistake (the enormity of which she is only just beginning to comprehend).

Atonement deals profoundly with some fascinating themes by wrapping them in an absorbing story populated with compelling, passionate characters at an important moment in history. It is a tried and true method carried off very well here. The illusion of objective observation that the movie demolishes is neatly mocked in the double entendre of its tagline: “You can only imagine the truth.” Really, though, Atonement is about a quest for redemption which cannot be achieved. How can anyone atone for an unforgivable sin? What hope is there in even trying?

In some ways, this film feels both too long and too short, and the editing is needlessly obscure in spots. There were a few points during the second act that left me confused, and some scenes that jumped in as flashbacks would have been better left in chronological order. The final scenes felt slightly rushed and rather unsatisfying, but some of the latter is a perfectly natural outgrowth of the nature of the denouement. This is definitely a story that could only improve upon repeated viewings. I hope to see it again, and I expect to be even more impressed when I do.

There was certainly plenty to be impressed by on a first viewing. Every aspect of the production is excellent. Costumes, sets and locations are sumptuous and detailed, filling the larger-than-life screen in a way that still feels genuine. The cinematography is simply gorgeous, delightful to watch even when the camera is focused on something less than pleasant. There is an amazing long shot at one point which tracks for several unbroken minutes through the chaos, madness and sheer enormity of the situation faced by the British troops trapped on the beach at Dunkirk. The scene highlights the skill of the filmmakers and brings this historical event to life without pulling you out of the ongoing story.

The score is haunting and brilliant, frequently weaving itself into the very fabric of whatever is on the screen: A character idly mashing keys on the piano, for instance. The soundtrack also does some very clever percussion work with a typewriter which, on top of adding a great and distinctive sound, underscores Briony’s ongoing need to exorcise her guilt by putting her story down on paper.

Atonement feels very much like authentic British drama of the 1940s, a costume piece with an even mix of both large and small-scale tragedy. However, this movie substitutes deep emotion for melodrama and doesn’t settle for an easy ending. It sets up its scenario with a great deal of care and finesse and the boldness of the finale took my breath away. The whole may or may not be better than the sum of its parts; only time and a few more viewings will tell. I’m not convinced that every aspect of Atonement lives up to the magnificence of its technical artistry (Memoirs of a Geisha offers a reasonable comparison in almost every way), but it’s still a film that is well-worth seeing.

~ by Jared on December 28, 2007.

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