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Review: Joe Wright's Atonement

A Near Perfect Film

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Review: Joe Wright's Atonement

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley in a scene from "Atonement"

Focus Features
Joe Wright's Atonement, adapted from Ian McEwan's novel, creates that mythic, rarely-achieved movie magic: total immersion. The film wholly transports you into the lives of fictional characters, making their pain, passion, and regret more real than anything else. All of the elements come together to create a near perfect film.
Christopher Hampton's screenplay captures the complexity of McEwan's novel. Seamus McGavery's stunning cinematography paints the lushness of an English manor in the summer heat, as well as the horrors of war. The tense score weaves menacing sounds at hand -- the buzzing of a trapped bee, the pounding of typewriter keys -- into an evocative whole. Joe Wright's direction is seamless, eliciting remarkable performances while maintaining suspense through elaborate jumps in time.

Keira Knightley in a scene from "Atonement"

Focus Features
Atonement begins with twelve-year old Briony (wonderful newcomer Saoirse Ronan), a precocious girl in a white dress who has just finished typing the final words to her first play. As author, Briony tries to control the events around her and experiences her first bout of failure, unable to force reluctant cousins to perform in a production. At the same time, Briony also desperately attempts to make sense of the unfolding relationship of her haughty, beautiful older sister Cecillia (Knightley) and the maid's Oxford-educated son Robbi (James McAvoy).

The Power of Fiction

After witnessing a series of bewildering events, Briony creates a narrative that satisfies her adolescent notion of plot, but destroys the lives of the young lovers. (If you've read the book, you already know Briony's act and its ramifications.) The already charged, sexual tension between Cecilia and Robbi escalates after she reads an erotic love note never intended to reach her eyes. Their one love scene -- the best of the year -- takes place in the library, bodies pressed against books. It must also be noted that Knightley, in a flowing, dark green satin gown, is unspeakably gorgeous.

Years pass. England enters into World War II. Briony returns as a repentant young woman (remarkably played by Romola Garai) who enters a nursing training program during World War II. The young woman is paying penance. When Briony discovers that it's impossible to make amends to the injured -- her livid sister, the falsely accused Robbi, or the young soldier whose head is held loosely together by bandages -- she turns to the only realm she has control: fiction. Grown old, Briony (finally tranformed into Vanessa Regrave) still tries to shape her world into a place where the ending comes out as it should.

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