Friday, January 18, 2008


Atonement, based on Ian McEwan's best selling 2002 novel is brought to the screen by director Joe Wright, who, for this adaptation, reunited with his film making team from Pride and Prejudice and it's Oscar nominated star, Keira Knightley. It's 1935, the hottest part of the year and Briony Tallis(Saoirse Ronan), a mischievous 13-year-old fledgling writer with an overactive imagination, is enjoying a life of luxury and privilege with her family on their estate in the Surrey Hills in England. On one particular afternoon, after failing to convince her cousins, Jackson and Pierrot, the 9-year-old twins, and 15-year-old Lola, to rehearse the play she has written rather than go swimming, Briony, from her upstairs bedroom window, witnesses an exchange between Cecilia(Knightley), her headstrong sister, and the housekeeper's Cambridge educated son Robbie(James McAvoy), which, after obviously stoking her imagination, prompts her to pry even further into her sister's business and eventually leads Briony to bear witness against Robbie in regards to a particularly atrocious transgression of which he is most assuredly innocent. Having openly declared their love for each other mere hours before, Robbie is arrested and separated from Cecilia on a night whose events will have repercussions for all involved for the remainder of their lives.

By the time I arrived at the end, this film had become one of my favorites. For me, there was absolutely nothing to dislike. Everything, the story, the characters, the settings, the cinematography, even the small amount of computer-generated imagery used, was practically perfect. The performances of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are outstanding and the chemistry that they are able to harness, between the two characters, truly breathes life into what could have very easily become just another period piece based on a good novel. The brief but powerful connection that Cecilia and Robbie forge is what makes everything that transpires during their separation so much more emotional and, as a testament to Knightley and McAvoy's talents, agonizing. However, I must note that it takes more than two incredible characters to create an outstanding film - without the cohesiveness of an equally compelling story, great characters are wasted. In this instance, the cohesive story comes in the form of another compelling character, Briony Tallis, brought to life amazingly, first, by Saoirse Ronan and then subsequently by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave, with each incarnation being the bearer of specific emotions as the decades pass. The rest of the cast more than adequately provide support for the depths of the story and help bring about an intense and heartfelt realism that other films with similar aspirations so often lack.

I really can't say enough good things about this movie. I'm a sucker for romantic period pieces, anyway, but this movie hit it out of the park*. Another thing I should mention is an outstanding shot that occurs about halfway through the film. In the scene, Robbie who is now a British soldier in World War II, makes his way to the final point of British retreat on France's Dunkirk beach which is, understandably, a perfect study of weary defeat and disorganization. As Robbie makes his way along the beach, through and around hundred's of other soldiers and horses, the camera never cuts away, even as he doubles back and circles certain areas looking for a resting place - the shot continues, without a break, for five and a half uninterrupted minutes. As it turns out, on the day they intended to film that scene, the film makers were able to gather 1000 extras for that day only and, to make matters worse, the tide would soon be coming in and the set and pieces would begin to disappear. They had to make the scene in one day and the best way to do it was in a single shot rather then dozens of short ones. From what I've read, they were able to film the shot three times and, I think, ended up using the third take. For me, even though I was already aware of the shot, I felt that it added a significant amount of scope and realism to the scene as well as contributing to the overall depth and quality of the film and, to be honest, I was so focused on the unfolding story, the shot was probably half over before I realized I was seeing it, which is a good indicator that the technicalities didn't overwhelm the story and/or emotion.

Atonement is easily one of the best movies I've seen in months and I can honestly say that even the most hard-hearted person would find it difficult to not be moved by this story. I wish I could say that the film lives up to the book but, having not read it or seen a comparison of the two, I can't, however, I will admit that I'm shopping victoriously for a copy of the book as I write this and intend to have read it by the time the film is released on disc. What I can say is, if you have a penchant for moving, well thought stories joined with great acting and spectacular film making, then this is definitely a movie that should not be missed.

*I felt it was a good time for a manly sports reference.

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