Atonement *** 1/2 (out of ****)

Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Christopher Hampton based on the novel by Ian McEwan
Cast: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Brenda Blethyn, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave
Rating: R (some language, war scenes, some sexuality)
Running Time: 123 min
Release Date: 12/7/2007

Atonement is the adaptation of the novel of the same title by Ian McEwan. Having not read the novel, I’ll the discussion of the transformation from book to film for others. Joe Wright has created a vivid film of how childhood ignorance and jealousy, class distinctions, and a legal system can do great injustice. This story is told in three segments that span nearly 70 years.

The first part takes place in 1935 at the Tallis estate in England. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a 13-year-old aspiring writer who has just completed her first play. She is having some difficulty getting the other children who are guests the home to participate in her project. So as they break to go out to play, she is looking out the window at her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the servant’s boy, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), by the fountain. We see an incident from her point of view. Later the film cuts to the same events from Cecilia and Robbie’s point of view. This is the beginning of a sequence of events that will lead to tragedy.

Although Robbie is the son of the servant, the Tallis family has generously paid for his Oxford education. He plans to go to medical school next. So while there are strong class distinctions between Cecilia and him, it is important to note that they both have a similar educational background. It is obvious that they have a very strong attraction to each other.

While Briony is only 13, she too has a childish crush on Robbie. She once even jumped in the lake in order that he might rescue her. This only resulted in a tongue lashing from Robbie about what dangerous stunt she pulled. Later she reads a note sent from Robbie to Cecilia and walks in on the in an erotic encounter that she misinterprets from her point of view. She comes to see Robbie as a predator. So when another young girl is assaulted, Briony believes that it was Ronnie and accuses him.

The movie next jumps to 1940. The British forces are in retreat from the advancing Wehrmacht. Robbie is one of three stragglers walking to the Dunkirk beach. His fate has been sealed by Briony’s false accusation from five years earlier. It has resulted in prison and eventual service in the army as private. Perhaps here is a major plot flaw. I doubt that the British Army was so strapped for man power in the spring of 1940 that they were recruiting in felons straight out of prison.

Back in England, Briony (Romola Garai) is now 18-years-old and a nurse in training, who treating the wounded returning from the war. In the evenings she is typing a draft of the very story that we are watching. The movie cuts back in forth in place and time. The transitions are also between fact and Briony’s fiction. Briony is wracked with guilt over what she has done to Robbie and her sister. This part of the film is rather confusing.

In the final short conclusion Briony is an elderly lady who has had a long successful career as an author. After all of these years she has finally completed the story of what she has done to the ill fated couple. She sees this book as her attempt at atonement for the wrong she has done as a child. This final segment resolves much of confusion of the second part of the film so play close attention here.

Atonement is rich with detailed settings. The persistent clicking of the manual typewriters of the period as the Briony writes her story is heard periodically and give a flavor of the time period. The British troops walking to Dunkirk carry the Lee Enfield Rifle No 1, Mark III which historically accurate. The detail of the furniture that adorns the sets is flawless. However, this is the type of film that does better at the Academy Awards than at the box office.

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