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Movie Review: Atonement

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If you savor the flavor of psychological twists and turns  then Atonement will appeal. If you worship at the altar of English films set in gorgeous English manors among the upper middle class set between the years 1935-1940 then this film's for you. Joe Wright is the English-born director who brings this novel to life. Christopher Hampton wrote the screenplay adapted from the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan. The cast is capable and strong.

Hitler is flexing his war muscles in France and the British are pulled there to fight for freedom. The only thing I knew about this film going in was the Oscar and best picture buzz surrounding it. I did not know that the backdrop of the film was the early World War II years just after the battle of Dunkirk, when the British troops appear shipwrecked off France, shooting horses for food while awaiting sea transport back to English shore. The movie spends a great deal of time on this part of British history.

The first half of the movie begins in the summer of 1930 on the grounds of an English manor. It is also a time of waning English puritanical mores. However, it is still a time when lower and upper classes are the two groups that can fornicate at will without causing raised eyebrows — except when seen through the eyes of a teen.

The films opens with 13-year-old Briony Tallis, played brilliantly by Saoirse Ronan, typing the last words of her play “The Trials of Arabella.” She excitedly runs off to show her mother the bound play which encourages her budding talent. Briony tries to enlist the help of her cute red-haired female cousin and her twin brothers to rehearse and put on this play. They start but quickly lose interest in rehearsals and would rather swim to stave off the summer heat. Briony must then look around the manor for mischief to keep her sanity and creativity in check. While the action of the film itself covers only the years 1935-1940, it concludes with an homage to the aging Briony's successful career.

Before she can get her play off the ground, the household is immediately upset by a returning brother and company. This propels the action into the next stage that will move from the manor to the battlefield. Briony’s restless soul is the engine. True to her character and reporter’s eye she thinks that she has seen her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) in a compromising position. Briony and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) meet in the meadow accidentally where he gives her the wrong note to deliver to her sister. The note has the word “cunt” in it. This is the last straw for Briony, who is looking for something now to ruin their love and lust for each other.

Enter ‘the lie.’ This lie is the heart of Atonement. During dinner Briony discovers that the two male twin cousins have left out of boredom. They leave a runaway note saying that they have set out through the forest for home. A search party of diners ensues, and in the process Briony witnesses something horrific in the field during the search. Only one face is shown but you can venture a guess as to who else was there. This is the take-off point for the film: Robbie will go to jail on her singular testimony and then to war after serving his sentence.

Briony is the one who must “atone” for her sin. She tells a deliberate lie on her sister’s lover Robbie. Her voyeurism continually crops up as a theme woven into the film. It is the reason she has to atone in the first place — she sees and hears too much. This lie reverberates throughout an engrossing two-hour, R-rated movie. Unrequited love is a bitch and so it is in this film as she makes two people pay. The young girl does not bargain that her conscience will hang in the balance, nor that writing will both condemn and redeem her. She does not believe that her own life will be unbearable under the strain of the guilty burden of her secret lie. Cecilia and Robbie are both pawns in a young girl’s game of chess where she gets to play God with her imagination and her writing, which is on trial here as well.

The movie tells the story beautifully and in some places unfolds bloodily. We get good sketches of life during war and of her sister and lover. They reunite after the war in a flat, and the story comes full circle. And the atonement process begins in this flat. She can admit her lie here — the lie she now regrets as a grown woman working as a nurse in early World War II Great Britain.

I loved the meticulous period recreation in this film. Atonement spans five years of the players’ lives but ends with the novelist (Briony) giving an interview about this, her last novel. She says that she is dying. And in almost deathbed-like manner, she confesses to the interviewer what really happened to the characters in this autobiographical novel, bringing the flashbacks and retakes into clearer focus: was it real or was it Memorex?

This movie is cut from The English Patient cloth. Clearly, it will get an Oscar best picture nod and be included in other categories. It has already garnered seven Golden Globe nominations. I give Atonement four stars out of five for acting, setting, and story. This novel translates beautifully onto the big screen.

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  • I agree, really excellent film that deserves its Oscar nominations.