Atonement is a film that is actually so close to perfection, the Oscar buzz surrounding it may turn people off. This should not be the case at all. The second feature film from director Joe Wright--his feature debut was the fresh take on Pride & Prejudice in 2005--really shows an astonishing level of promise for a still-young director.
Equally astonishing is the kind of passion and grand vision he and the whole cast and crew have infused into this screen adaptation of Ian McEwan's acclaimed, though purportedly un-filmable novel. Atonement manages not only to remain impossibly faithful to the book, but stands on its own as one hell of a film, one that merits the overkill of Oscar buzz it has been receiving and will continue to receive.
That said, it is a film that goes beyond Oscar movie stereotypes and audiences shouldn't avoid it expecting the kind of stiff period picture mood-piece or actor-vanity-vehicle that Oscar-contending movies get flack for being. Atonement speaks to the timelessness of love, redemption and art, sans stiffness, with all the sweeping romance, intrigue and heartbreak you can freely find yourself giving into.
The movie starts on the hottest day of 1936 at a sprawling manor in the English countryside. We see 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) at her typewriter--set brilliantly to the unforgettable score by Dario Marianelli--finishing off a play that she hopes to have performed for her returning older brother after dinner that night. Briony is an aspiring writer, but with very little drama, secrecy or experience to inform her precocious works. Bored and restless, she turns her icy blue gaze--through which the rest of the story is presented--to the window, where she witnesses her 21-year-old sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) strip in front of the housekeeper's son Robbie (James McAvoy) and dive into the fountain. It's a scene that perplexes and frustrates her and it isn't long before she figures out for herself through her dangerous imagination and the reading of unintentionally-delivered pornographic note to Cecelia from the impassioned Robbie. Throwing Briony further through the loop is when she stumbles upon the lovers in the library. When their cousin is later raped and Briony accuses Robbie, we witness the dangers of a 13-year-old mind--not quite grasping the implications of her imagination and lie and not beyond knowing the difference between right and wrong. We also see the class tensions of the time and how authorities are quick to agree that who else but the housekeeper's son--who could be nothing more even after a Cambridge degree--could commit such a crime.
The consequences of that day are played out into the beginnings of WWII, where a grown-up Briony (Romola Garai) comes to grips with what she did and attempts to atone for it through nursing and her writing. It is also where Robbie and Cecelia have a brief meeting before a disgraced Robbie is shipped off to war. Here, McAvoy and Knightley have some of their deepest performances, as we see just in their faces the immense sadness of Robbie and Cecelia's broken lives. However life has messed things up for them, they aren't hardened to each other. An incredible duo with chemistry that is off the hook, James McAvoy pulls off every nuance in an incredibly complex role, while Keira Knightley is perfectly cast in a role that seems made for her. They make the lovers heroic, and they transcend even the war itself and all its horrors, impossible as it may sound.
Equally impossible is the treatment of the war aspect of the film, another thing that works despite all odds. The crowning moment of the segment is an ambitious long single shot along the beach at the evacuation of Dunkirk, poignantly summing up several pages of McEwan's work. The disaster of that evacuation is both surreal and horrific. That six-minute shot is sublime and will be talked about come Oscar season.
Atonement is an absolute classic, from the performances, the direction, the writing, the gorgeous cinematography, to most of all a heart-rending, revelatory ending--one that makes you go back and question everything leading up to it--everything about this movie is so tight, ambitious and well-executed, it hurts. People may doubt that a movie like this can still be made, but the only thing they need doubt is that this film is one to be missed.
Atonement opens Fri., Dec. 21.