Friday, January 25, 2008


It’s the hottest day of the year in this part of England. Inhabitants of the estate listlessly wait for the heat to dissipate, either by napping or swimming, or talking and taking slow walks in the garden. That is, the upper class can do this. The other class prepares the evening meal, changes the bedsheets, cleans. It’s a place we’d love to visit, but only if we’re in the “have” category. The “have-nots” have an altogether different reality, not the quality of novella daydreams.

Briony Tallis is a 13-year-old girl in the house who fancies herself a playwright. She puts together dramatic stories and urges visiting children to act out the parts, however unwilling they are. Atonement is the story of Briony and the two main players in her life, her sister Cecilia and the son of one of the housekeepers, Robbie. There is also a third character in this drama: Class. While you can see the palpable sexual tension between Cecilia and Robbie on this steaming plantation, class separates them, and we wonder if they can surmount this challenge. But they never get a chance to find out, as on that hot summer’s day, a series of events changes the lives of all three forever, particularly when Briony reports something that's false.

In the ‘50’s, this film would have been separated by an intermission. The first half would tell the story of these people in the mid-1930’s, and the second half would show them after World War II had begun for Britain. It has the sweeping, epic feel of a Gone With the Wind, showing the excesses of the upper crust crushed underfoot when war begins. There are some stunning scenes, shot on location in the U.K., of troops and machinery waiting for the battle at Dunkirk. The film is worth watching from the standpoint of the cinematography alone.

This is a rather slow film, languorous in its approach, in its introduction of all the characters in the house. It’s not a long play time, but it certainly feels like it. The film feels about 30 minutes too long.

Joe Wright's directing and Christopher Hampton's screenplay managed the difficult job of telling a descriptive novel in visual scenes, and these two, along with some deft editing, played with time and place to push across the impact of each scene more fully. It's a masterpiece of storytelling.

The acting is wonderful. We’re beginning to appreciate James McAvoy more and more, when he first captured our attention as Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia, to a man whose life changed on the false word of one misguided little girl. Keira Knightley, who possibly received too many accolades for her early work, is truly maturing into a fine actress; this is a difficult role to play, and it’s the best thing she’s done so far. Young Saoirse Ronan is amazing as the young Briony, but her older counterpart, actress Romola Garai , is also worth noting. Veteran actresses Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave have only minutes in the film, but emotionally anchor it.

The full emotional brunt of the film, of the measure of atonement offered by Briony, did not hit me until the end of the film. And that’s the way it should be.

Thumb’s up.

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress - Saoirse Ronan, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Original Score - Dario Marianelli, Best Costume - 2007


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