Atonement (2007) ***1/2

Rated: R
Runtime: 2hr 3min
Director: Joe Wright
Stars: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy
Genre: Drama
Language: English

Can We Forgive?

In a Nutshell

Plot

Straight as an Arrow
Twisty

Sound Quality

Easy to Hear
Incomprehensible

Who's That?

Few Main Characters
Lots

Naughty Words

Mild
Foul

Naked people

None
Lots

Violence

Tame
Bloody

In a faithful adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel, Atonement reaches new heights in the art of instant transport to another time and place. The opening credits and music are heard over the unmistakable click-click-click of a manual typewriter punching keys against a hard, rubber roll. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) rambles through her family’s vast estate on a sweltering afternoon in 1935. White-clad, purposeful and straight as a reed, the girl keenly observes an orderly but mysterious world as grist for her budding talent as a writer. There’s plenty of steamy romance and intrigue for her to witness in the amber-lit halls and gracious gardens, but over-imaginative Briony misinterprets what she sees. Infused with adolescent purity and passion, she accuses an innocent man of a sexual crime and shapes irrevocably the plot of many lives, not least her own.

Briony’s older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), is of an age when young women of her class seek a good “match”. She tries unsuccessfully to squelch her attraction to Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son, a sensitive, promising young man who is a protégé of Cecilia’s father. By the time Robbie is dragged off by the police for a rape he did not commit, Cecilia is committed to him eternally. She will break with her family, learn to live with little, and wait for her lover no matter what Fate brings.

Sensitively directed by Joe Wright, Atonement reveals in its first half an insular society of privilege, luxury and ennui in the final hour before World War II snuffs it out. In this world, one’s class — at either end of the spectrum — is both a refuge and a prison. The second half of the film depicts the Dunkirk with journalistic scope - like an open war wound. The great conflict transforms society as suddenly and completely as Briony’s terrible misjudgment alters the lives of those close to her. Nothing will ever be the same.

Poor Robbie! Following a grueling jail term, he is drafted as a foot soldier in France, 1940. His tortured path to the disastrous evacuation of the beach is seen in parallel to an older and somewhat wiser Briony (Romola Garai). The young woman devotes herself to nursing wounded soldiers, like Robbie, and awkwardly seeks to heal her relationship with Cecilia in atonement for a ghastly childhood error.

The acting in Atonement is, across the board, compelling. Robbie’s mother Grace (Brenda Blethyn) sees her darling’s fate unfold and serves as a one-woman Greek chorus below stairs. Danny Hardman (Alfie Allen) as Robbie’s tough, compassionate mate in battle keeps a philosophical grip on grim reality. These two excellent supporting roles frame and highlight the impossibility of rising above one’s station. Without this implacable rule, there would have been no family drama here, just the War.

The film covers a lot of time and history and introduces many intriguing characters. It is punctuated with flashbacks that enrich the production even when they sometimes render it difficult to follow. A much older Briony tidies up the tangled strands of the tale at last. Now a successful novelist, she is terminally ill and yet apparently at peace. In a brief but dimensional cameo performance by Vanessa Redgrave, her surprising dénouement provides abundant satisfaction tinged with lingering disquiet. Does atonement finally depend upon the capacity to forgive oneself? Atonement, the film, invites more than a single viewing to ponder this question.

Lynn McCann's checkered professional life began with dance and has included singing and acting, writing and journalism, teaching and tutoring. A long career as a computer programmer is mercifully behind her and she looks forward to publishing a memoir, a biography, and a popular history of automation technology. She continues to perform as a singer, and leads New York City tours for Elderhostel.

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