'Atonement' explores forgiveness, regret

CorrespondentJanuary 4, 2008 

  • ***1/2

    Cast: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave

    Director: Joe Wright

    Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes

    Web site: www.atonementthemovie.co.uk

    Theaters: Cary: Crossroads. Galaxy. Chapel Hill: Varsity. Raleigh: North Hills.

    Rating: R (for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality)

Even better than the book, "Atonement" is a beautifully scored and perfectly cast adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2001 novel that makes it clear that while sacrifices are a necessary part of wartime, they also impinge upon on one's most personal day-to-day endeavors.

A powerful reminder that our eyes and minds can indeed play tricks on us, the cinematography alternates between "Titanic" and glacially meandering, beautifully balancing the raging with the resplendent. Each scene, whether advancing a relationship or a lie, reinforces the pervasively haunting message: Deception is a sure way to test what are believed to be close family ties.

Set in pastoral prewar Britain, the initial romance is introduced gradually. Precocious and wise beyond her years, young Briony (a beguiling and remarkable Saoirse Ronan) fancies herself a writer -- barely 13 and already a budding novelist. Briony watches everything and misses nothing. And at her family's lush estate, there is plenty to observe. Her favorite targets: thoughtful older sister Cecilia (a brilliant and beautiful Keira Knightley), and the housekeeper's son Robbie (a tough yet ever charming James McAvoy) whom Briony routinely flirts with.

After intercepting a note never meant to be read, Briony catches the star-crossed youths in a moment of forbidden love; and from there, her jealousy and presumption ignite, rendering an overactive imagination unstoppable.

Arrested mostly based on Briony's word, Robbie is charged with a terrible crime and given a choice: prison or the Army. He opts to serve in World War II.

Beyond the light, intelligent script, what holds this somewhat tragic tale together is the exceptional score; each scene dramatically punctuated by marvelous symphonic melodies, along with the thumping drumbeat of a typewriter. The expository dialogue is minimal and, together with the perfectly mood-matched music, moves the multicountry action at a refreshingly brisk pace.

Always hoping their "story can resume," Robbie writes to Cecilia throughout his tour of duty. Busy helping the war effort as a nurse, Cecilia, too, keeps the embers burning, never allowing a moment's doubt that they will someday be reunited.

Meanwhile, perhaps as penance, Briony opts for nurse corps training. And over time, her feelings of regret lead her to repent, or at least try.

Interwoven with the war depictions are a series of reflective moments that emphasize Briony's unremitting and inescapable guilt.

It is only in hindsight, some 50 years later, that we are shown the unforeseeable consequences and true damage of Briony's actions: which family rifts can be fixed with an apology, and more compelling, which cannot be forgiven.

In a portrayal stunning in its quiet anguish, Vanessa Redgrave, as the older Briony, coolly conveys her sorrow and ultimately, her dismay at having no way to atone.

Pondering what purpose is served by honesty, the newly pragmatic writer dismisses reality in favor of a story, one that can -- at least on paper -- make up for her sins of long ago. Still, Briony remains aware that no matter how eloquently phrased or sincerely attempted, atonement does not equal absolution, and time cannot heal all wounds.

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