Sunday, March 21, 2010

Archive: 'Atonement'

Movie Review
Atonement (2007)

"Atonement" is certain to be the Best Picture nominee to beat. It has all the components that make Oscar voters swoon such as eloquent English people, a lush romance that is torn apart, and a backdrop of war. All of this would be a bit much if it weren't for how worthy the film happens to be. It's a movie that takes an environment and setting we think we know and turns it on its head to reveal the dark passions, lies, jealousy, and deceit that lurk beneath. The beginning of the film is so full of brightness and hope, a stark contrast to the tragedy and despair to follow at the film's end.

It's a hot, lazy day at a large English country mansion. Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is the beautiful and bold oldest sister of a rich family. Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) is their housekeeper's (Brenda Blethyn) son, who has potential thanks to Cecilia's father. The two of them meet at a fountain outside, and Robbie, holding a family heirloom, clumsily breaks a piece off and drops it into the water. Cecilia dives in to retrieve it, and emerges in a soaking wet white gown that is now revealing her nearly naked body. Robbie stands in admiring silence as Cecilia stands before him on the edge of the fountain. From a bedroom window above, there is Cecilia's 13-year-old sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who watches intently. She believes she is witnessing Robbie forcing some rude sex play on her older sister. In actuality, though, she is witnessing their first true moment of mutual love.

Briony has an active imagination as she is already writing plays, which easily allows her to dramatize what she sees. She also has a crush on Robbie, which stirs her emotions to the level of resentment. Robbie back at home sits at his typewriter trying to find the right words to express how he truly feels for Cecilia. In his frustration, he types a letter including a certain four-letter word starting with a "c" that was never supposed to or meant to be read. Robbie hand writes the real letter he intends to deliver, but accidentally picks up the wrong one, putting it into the hands of the vindictive Briony. During a dinner gathering, Robbie and Cecilia retreat to the library where they can't help but have a fit of erotic passion. Briony walks in just at the most intense moment and takes it as an act of violence. All of Briony's false perceptions lead her to accuse Robbie of the rape of her cousin, which tears him away from Cecilia for good.

These opening scenes are what set "Atonement" apart from what one may expect. The flipped perspectives shatter any feeling of it being something like a Jane Austen novel adaptation, like director Joe Wright's other film, "Pride and Prejudice," actually was. This film is a faithful adaptation of the Ian McEwan best-seller, and by the looks of the movie, it seems like the novel would be impossible to translate onto screen. And yet here it is, remarkably done.

Robbie is sent to war in France while, off-screen, a maturing Briony realizes the terrible consequences for her act as a child and tries to atone for what she did. Years pass, and the movie shifts between glimpses of the war and London before the bombing. Cecilia is a nurse in London, as is a now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai). There is a single, unbroken shot of Dunkirk where a dismal beach is crowded with soldiers waiting to be evacuated. A line of horses get shot because there's no food to feed them, a ferris wheel spins in the background, a choir sings, buildings are bombed-out, and troops lie in bloody messes all in one beautifully prolonged pan, which is breathtaking in its harsh surrealism of the war. And amidst this, Robbie and Cecilia continuously write each other, waiting desperately for the day they can rejoin.

Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony do have one single meeting, and Briony's grief swallows her whole. Knightley is as elegant as ever, talking with such eloquence and grace, she simply belongs in these types of roles. McAvoy officially proves himself a worthy actor with a dynamic role, presenting all the necessary nuances in expression. The real stand-out here, though, is actually Ronan and Garai, playing the two younger stages of Briony. Ronan's piercing blue eyes, especially, are haunting and enchanting.

There are many accomplishments within this movie: the acting, the writing, the direction, and a beautiful musical score by Dario Marinelli, whose percussive beats build from the continuous clacking of Briony's typewriter keys. The ending to "Atonement" will blindside you, and strike you with words containing a powerful force behind them. A now elder Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) is a retiring writer who is getting a TV interview about her last novel. Redgrave does not have to be on the screen for long; her voice reveals a lifetime of grief and remorse in an intense close-up. She poses questions about all we have seen, about betrayal, and about the true meaning of atonement.

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