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Ah, McAvoy, how I pined when last year’s Oscars rolled around and you were soundly ignored for your solid, complex performance in Last King of Scotland. I understood it was Forest Whitaker’s show, but I knew that one day you’d be getting your own gold man. While I had no doubt a nomination would come for your role in Starter for 10 (- … and the sarcasm goes here), I’m overjoyed that there’s an even surer bet for a nomination for your incredible turn in Atonement (- absolutely no sarcasm inserted a’tall). 

What a rare beast of a performance you’ve given us, my wee Scottish lad. Your performance is a study in timing, restraint, passion and the power of silence, all carefully measured under director Joe Wright’s careful hand. No surprise considering Wright’s fresh, intelligent retelling of Pride and Prejudice, which left us so impressed in 2005. I had hoped the director could live up to his impressive debut with whatever his sophomore effort proved to be. That he’s tackled Ian McEwan’s tale of deception, desire, war, and the hazards of crossing class barriers in late-1930’s England shows us a fearless, new director with true vision. 

Atonement begins in the heat of an English summer in 1935, on the enormous country estate of the Tallis family. Miles and miles of vacant space in one house and hardly anyone suitable for precocious 13-year old Briony Tallis to play with, leave Briony to create her own world, typing away a play on an old Corona. Briony shadows the movements of her idolised, sophisticated older sister, Cecilia. At an age where the first stirrings of womanhood are upon the young girl still in the pixie bob and smock dress; the other apple of her eye is the ward of the estate, the gentle, educated housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner. On the hottest day of the year, Briony’s adoration for both becomes twisted when she realises the depth of the feelings each has for the other. As Briony’s mind begins to wrap around the stirrings of sexuality between Robbie and Cecilia, innocent acts between the two become lurid, not so innocent acts (- never underestimate the power of a well-stocked English library) perverse and even dangerous. Briony’s imagination, already breathing with a life of its own, goes into a full-on fever, spins utterly out of control. In a fit of childish jealousy with very adult repercussions, Briony accuses Robbie of a crime for which he is jailed and his life inexorably changed forever. 

Five years later, it is Briony’s need for forgiveness for her ruinous lie that causes her to seek out Cecilia, who fled the family after Robbie’s arrest to become a wartime nurse in London. Briony follows Cecilia’s lead and takes up nursing also as a way to be nearer to Cecilia and to repent for the damage she caused as a child. While in London, Cecilia finds Robbie himself off to war as part of a jail-release program. Despite the hardship that Robbie has faced in jail and the arduous duty ahead of him, the young couple discovers their love unfaded by their time apart. His need to return to his awaiting lover spurs Robbie on through his military tour through France. He’s desperate to get back to Cecilia and make a new life for them both. 

From the first shots of the grassy fields of the sweeping Tallis estate, dry and blistering in the summer haze, you’re caught up in the spell that Wright weaves. The lush grounds contrasted with the pristine, empty, museum-like halls of the manor make for perfect fly-on-the-wall viewing. It’s impossible not to be drawn in, spying on the mating rituals and human sacrifices of the well-to-do. It’s that complete submersion into the world Wright has created that makes Robbie’s story more harrowing. Having his education bestowed upon him by the Tallis pere after his own father, also an employee, dies on the estate; Robbie’s desire to go to medical school is questioned and ridiculed by the elder Tallis children, who seem to resent the money being spent on the servants’ son. Even while she secretly lusts for Robbie, Cecilia questions the appropriateness of inviting him to join the family at a dinner party.  

Robbie is surely the focus of the film’s sympathies and when the scene shifts to the war in France, we see the horror, absurdity and brutality of battle through his eyes. One of the most breathtaking moments of Atonement is Robbie’s arrival at Dunkirk, the site of the huge evacuation of Allied Forces after defeat by the Nazis. After days of wandering with two compatriots through the perilous countryside, Robbie finds thousands of his fellow soldiers unable to get a ship home; the German forces have decimated the British fleet and left the Allied troops without transport. This scene is a marvel. As he did previously in the wonderful manor ball scene in Pride and Prejudice, Wright uses a continuous tracking shot to show us thousands of stranded soldiers awaiting rescue. The camera makes the viewer another soldier, taking the same steps as Robbie through bloody medical tents, seeing and hearing the wounded and dying men inside, arguments with staff sergeants, the brutal destruction of war horses (- can’t let them live and leave them to the Germans, I suppose…), soldiers shell-shocked and crying just sitting looking out at an sea full of nothing. In one fluid motion, the camera continues on through shattered windows of pubs abandoned but for the troops trawling for a last drop of anything, past the soldiers seated astride the horses of a dilapidated merry-go-round and over to the utterly surreal sight of the cars of a Ferris wheel swinging in the distance down the boardwalk of the seaside town; you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. All propers and praise to Atonement's director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; I have no idea how that shot was achieved, but it is one of the most affecting images of war I’ve ever seen captured on film. I have no idea how this shot was achieved, but it is one of the most affecting images of war I’ve ever seen captured on film.

Between the harrowing scenes at Dunkirk and the horrors we see in the London war hospital through Briony’s eyes, Wright gives us the right amount of action to balance the character study that began at the country estate. The film starts out slow and languid, the way one would move; drenched in heat on a sweltering summer day. The lighting for those first moments is blindingly bright and the colour palette vibrant. All those scenes have a glossy sheen to them, indeed Robbie and Cecilia look more like MGM stars of the 1930’s than sweaty, English teenagers (- long hot summer, remember?), but then we’re seeing them through Briony’s eyes. Briony’s are the eyes of an adoring young girl a little too swept away by her imagination. In the intensity of Briony’s whims, her adoration is unbounded and her reaction to what she can only envision as betrayal by those she loves most is fierce. As the sun goes down over the manor, it’s as if the cool of the evening energizes the film and during the dinner party the colours become even richer and more glittering and the action begins to speed up. Robbie’s scenes at war are washed out and faded almost to the point of having no colour at all. The majority of the scenes appear to be shot under overcast skies; even on sunny days tramping through France, everything looks gray.  

Listen to ol’ MG, James McAvoy is going to get a nomination for this. Playing the wistful, determined housekeeper’s son, hopelessly and angrily reaching above his station; McAvoy displays an astounding amount of control as Robbie. He captures the quiet young man’s gentleness and kindness but is able to balance him with the right amount of youthful lechery and foolishness wholly appropriate to someone of Robbie’s years. When I mentioned Robbie looking like a 1930’s movie star in those early scenes, I wasn’t kidding, something in McAvoy’s stance, his posture, shows us a different Robbie in Briony’s eyes than the one we’ll see later in wartime France shattered, exhausted and desperate to get home to the one he loves. McAvoy speaks more clearly with mouth shut than volumes of dialog could ever give away. 

Keira Knightley is excellent as the simmering, shimmering Cecilia. Haughty and snobbish, you can feel her revulsion for her feelings for the servant’s son. She’s utterly believable when they meet in London after Robbie’s prison term and she reveals her love for him. I’ve enjoyed Mlle. Knightly in other projects and I’m pleased that in Atonement she gets to show her chops in a grown-up, romantic leading role. Strong, decisive, and clear-eyed, Knightley’s Cecilia is a great transition and a wonderful showpiece for her.  

Wright brings wonderful performances out of the entire cast; every one playing on the same key. The young Saoirse Ronan as young Briony is a tremendous find. Every time she’d level one of her depthless stares out a window at the goings-on below you could practically hear the gears in her head churning dangerously. Romola Garai as the older Briony is the perfect follow through as the repentant sister begging for Cecilia’s forgiveness. Her head tucked down in every scene, you see the weight of Briony’s sins settled upon her shoulders. A special mention to an actor I’d noticed back in Starter for 10 (-  there was someone in it besides McAvoy?), who is brilliant in a small role here; Benedict Cumberbatch serves as comic relief in a role that really isn’t all that funny. It’s a credit that his timing and skills that he was able to transform the role and make it his own and the unlikely levity works.    

Atonement is a hypnotic, lyrical film that will be regarded as a classic in years to come. I believe it’s an Oscar contender with my dear McAvoy surely getting some luv, and Joe Wright certainly deserving a nod. This haunting, mesmeric, masterful work is made more notable for being helmed by a young director in only his second feature. I can’t wait to see what Wright does next, but in the meantime, I’ll be happy to watch Atonement over and over again. 

Very well done. 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva/ Mighty Ganesha 

November 24th, 2007

 

 

 

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Photos

(Stills Courtesy of  Focus Features)

 

 

 

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