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Overall Rating

Awesome: 17.98%
Worth A Look37.08%
Average: 26.97%
Pretty Bad: 10.11%
Total Crap: 7.87%

10 reviews, 29 user ratings

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by MP Bartley

"Liar Liar."
4 stars

Children always lie about something when they're particularly young, usually to attract attention to themselves. Often, it's about what your dad does for a living, that you're actually adopted or something equally fanciful. It's rare that they tell a lie as devastating as the one that Briony Tallis tells here, however.

Southern England in the mid 1930's and the Tallis family are relaxing in the gorgeous summer at their mansion. The actions of Herr Hitler seem a long way off and big sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is eagerly awaiting the return home of her brother from university. To celebrate this, the family are having a dinner party and one of the guests is Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper's son, who the Tallis family have paid tuition fees for and see as one of their own. There is also a barely contained attraction between he and Cecilia, which does not go unnoticed by Cecilia's 13 year old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan - no, I don't know how you pronounce it either). Briony is in a mood because no-one is paying her, or the play that she has just written, any attention. This mood, and her youthful naivete, leads her to terribly misunderstand a confrontation between Cecilia and Robbie - a situation complicated by the fact that Briony reads a letter that Robbie has written for Cecilia, in which he descriptively ruminates about a specific part of her anatomy. The result of this is that Briony lies about an event that occurs later that night, a lie that splits the family in two and has a long lasting effect on her relationship with both Cecilia and Robbie. Fastforward five years and Europe is in the midst of World War Two - Robbie is in action in France, Cecilia is a nurse in London tending to the wounded and Briony (now played by Romola Garai) has followed her there, to train as a fellow nurse and also to amend for her actions and repair their fractured relationship.

Atonement was a very serious novel, read by very serious people on trains and on lunch breaks in an attempt to show how very serious they are. With its themes of deceit, unrequited love and guilt, the war time setting and its heavy use of upper class accents, any film version should have crumpled under its own importance as a blatant prestige grabber - in short it should have turned out like an Anthony Minghella film (who pops up at the end in a cameo as if to unknowingly assert this). It's to Joe Wright's immense credit then, that he avoids this and finds the pulse of the characters and the story underneath the period trappings, with a film that is instead more reminiscent of David Lean.

It's a film that is neatly divided into two, and the first half practically boils off the screen, not just because of the lush, hazy summer it's set in, but because of the simmering sexual tensions between the characters, resulting in what will be one of the most talked about sex scenes, all the more effective by the fact that it's done almost fully clothed by its participants. It's a lusty, balmy opening, that doesn't titillate but sets up a precarious set of relationships that get sent flying by one child's lie. As hot as the first half is, there's a chilly undercurrent to it and Wright contrasts the two perfectly, also setting up the same situation twice from different perspectives in a way that is so subtle it'll take you a few moments before you realise what Wright is doing and how cleverly he's done it.

He also judges the skip forward in five years perfectly and proves as adept in portraying a shattered Europe as he does an idyllic English summer. It's here that he allows himself one show off moment, as he unleashs a staggering five minute tracking shot of Robbie staggering mutely across the beaches of Normandy, the horror of war etched on his face as he tries to take in the desperation evacuation of the British back home. It's not a film that is overburdened with grandiose moments in an attempt to convince us of its own importance, but instead proves adept at painting on an epic canvas, whilst remembering that it is the small character details that linger longest.

The youthful cast etch these details in as well as Wright does. If Knightley doesn't do much else but pout, at least she pouts well and has far more chemistry with McAvoy than she ever did with Orlando Bloom. Just the mere mention of Bloom also highlights just what a great job McAvoy does too. Capturing the bawdy sexual excitement of youth and then the destroyed innocence of a soldier called upon to do far too much, far too young, McAvoy is excellent throughout, giving a performance that will stand up along the best leading performances of the year, and shows that his irritating presence in The Last King of Scotland was hardly his fault.

Both are upstaged however by the astonishing performance of Garai. Again capturing someone old before her time because of the war time circumstances, Garai makes you feel her regret at her youthful indiscretion and the fact that it has ruined her own life, as the guilt remains no matter what good she does as a nurse - just remember the scene where she comforts a badly injured French solider. That should be her Oscar clip, right there. Despite what happens to Cecilia and Robbie, it's arguable that the real tragedy lies in Briony's character and Garai nails it.

It's down to these highly credible performances that Atonement isn't as stiff as it could have been. There's a subtle human tragedy here, but it's never painted black and white. Is it fair to hold the blame against the adult Briony for her childhood actions? Or should Cecilia and Robbie take their share of blame, for not expressing their feelings more explicitly or at a more appropriate right time? Atonement asks some moral questions, but doesn't give any easy answers.

Elegantly directed (Wright nimbly handling a final major leap forward in time that could have drastically unbalanced the subtle finale), Atonement is a film that seems designed purely to impress Academy voters, yet deserves to, because not only is it a classy production in all departments (Dario Marianelli's score will tiptoe round your head for days), it's a heartfelt and touching look at complex relationships and the layers of truth that govern them. If sorry is the hardest word to say, then sometimes it's also the hardest word to accept.

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originally posted: 09/21/07 19:13:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/03/10 cook sad yet stunning film. great acting. two thumbs up 5 stars
11/04/09 me gorgeous, almost as great as the book 5 stars
8/02/09 Samantha Pruitt very sad and depressing, but the acting is good and it looks great. 4 stars
4/22/09 Jean W. I felt so alone hating this movie. Fuss and pretension. No substance. 2 stars
3/24/09 Anonymous. one of my favorite movies :] 5 stars
1/04/09 Hello i thought this film was beautiful and perfect. =] 5 stars
12/15/08 Pamela White surreal ending but film drama lacking 3 stars
10/17/08 Simon A tad too indulgent and dramatically concocted for me. does make you sad, thats something.. 3 stars
8/19/08 Phil M. Afficiando Just wish it were less contrived and manipulative; otherwise pretty good 3 stars
8/17/08 Clackity Clack An example of how to take a good story and ruin it. 1 stars
7/27/08 Caloline Erm ... Lola did not see and know who attacked her. This was pretty clear. 5 stars
6/15/08 Melissa Stinchcomb I expected this movie to be better than it was. It jumped around too much.Ended badly. 3 stars
6/12/08 Jayson What was the fuss about? 3 stars
5/03/08 Calllie If you like historical romance this is the movie for you. Touching story and performances 5 stars
4/01/08 Butt waaaay overrated. Highly contrived schoolboy script. Watch Casablanca instead. 2 stars
3/22/08 Rollie It's rare when a chamber drama can function this well as an art-house picture. Great movie 5 stars
2/14/08 Ming Great love story...I enjoy watching it...Too bad its a sad ending 5 stars
2/13/08 Xavier Roca-Ferrer Utter rubbish! 1 stars
2/11/08 styace very shallow character studies . not enough depth to make me feel how i should have . 1 stars
2/02/08 earthangel Really lousy movie. What a waste! I agree with Butterfly about Eat Keira Eat 1 stars
1/31/08 Alistair Heartbreakingly beautiful and hauting -it grows in impact for days after 5 stars
1/22/08 diane livingston painfully boring, pointless 1 stars
1/21/08 Julie Movie was terrible. First time I was tempted to walk out of a movie before the end. 1 stars
1/20/08 maryjane good but not the best. still made me cry though 4 stars
1/20/08 orpy Made me want to read the book 3 stars
1/18/08 Buttley I liked it, it wasn't Best Picture good but I can see why they'd nominate it. Eat Keira Eat 4 stars
12/27/07 jeanne You soul-less pigs - Stick to "Knocked Up" THIS is a brilliant film, soaring and wrenching. 5 stars
12/10/07 Ole Man Bourbon Overrated and forgettable. Story is contrived and often silly. Good acting. 2 stars
12/09/07 Keystra Williams OVERRRATED beyond belief! 1 stars
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  07-Dec-2007 (R)
  DVD: 18-Mar-2008



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