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Film Review


Few films are as satisfying as an epic, spanning years, following characters through their lives. We watch, we often identify with them, we begin to love them, and we hope that their futures will be happy ones. In a way, for a brief period, they become our children. The English seem to do these better than most, and Atonement is no exception. Taken from Ian McEwan's highly praised novel by the same name, it tells the story of a young girl's confusion and a lie that destroy lives, including her own. The film opens in 1935, with Cecilia and Briony Tallis, two sisters in a grand English country house. The older, Cecilia (played by Keira Knightley), is stunning, sophisticated, and seething with desire, although not obvious. Her younger sister, Briony, about 11, is precocious and curious, and wants to write. She has just finished a short play that she wants to perform at the house. One hot summer day, their older brother comes home with his friend, who admires but is soon intimidated by Cecilia. The housekeeper's son, Robbie (played by James McAvoy), works as a gardener on the estate, and the Tallis' father has promised to send him to medical school. Cecilia is smitten but aloof, and Robbie is equally attracted but very aware of their class differences. Cecilia takes a vase out to the fountain to fill it, in part because Robbie is working nearby. They are both handling the vase when it breaks, and Cecila impulsively takes off her dress to plunge into the fountain to retrieve the fragment. She jumps out, soaking wet in her underwear, and Robbie does notice. He goes home to write her an apology for looking and ends up writing two notes. Robbie gives one of the notes to Briony to deliver to Cecilia, and the course of their lives is changed by that note. Much more happens in the first part of the film, but I don't want to be a spoiler.

Four years later war has come, and Robbie is part of the defeated British army at Dunkirk desperately waiting for rescue. The panorama of the beachhead is stunning, with wrecked and burning vehicles everywhere, many wounded, huge groups of dazed soldiers, and tragedy everywhere. There is an immensely moving scene of a French officer shooting the cavalry horses, who are lined up as trained, in a row. A group of dirty, battered soldiers in a wrecked band stand sing Blue Birds over England and others ride play rides. All pray for and await the boats. The film then shifts to London, where Briony (now played by Romola Garai) has begun to work as a nurse in a hospital as legions of wounded pour in. She deliberately chose the hospital that her sister, now estranged from the family, was associated with, in an attempt to atone for her guilt. The hospital scenes are powerful, especially Briony's interaction with a dying soldier. The final third of the film, 50 years later, is a coda, in the form of an interview with Briony, who has become a famous novelist. Vanessa Redgrave plays Briony in old age, and is sensational. The coda is sad, shocking, and very powerful.

The sweep of this film is awesome, and never lags. The story is complex but told clearly. Has there ever been an English film with less than fabulous acting? Again, Atonement is no exception. James McAvoy (don't think Last King of Scotland) is marvelous, as are all three of the women who play Briony at the various stages of her life. Cinematography is absolutely outstanding, with so many gorgeous scenes. And the music, with period songs, was wonderful. Much of the accompaniment is the clacking of a typewriter, which is so pivotal to the story, and a single piano note. I loved this film, its ambition, its tragic story, and its power. Atonement is tremendously moving, and the perfect big screen film. Just opened at the Clay.

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