Movie Review: <i>Atonement</i>

The first half of Ian McEwan's novel, on which this movie is based, is such a
tour de force about the power of language, imagination and jealousy, that
reading it, you hope whoever does the inevitable film version will get it right.
And director Joe Wright does. Set during a single day at an English country
mansion in 1930s, that crucial scene centers around a young girl (newcomer
Saoirse Ronan) who witnesses something her preteen hormones just don't
understand: she sees her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the
housekeeper's son, Robbie (James McAvoy), verbally sparring/flirting by a
fountain and getting it on in the library and mistakes the sexual tension
between them for anger and violence.

It's not hard to see why Briony lets her imagination run wild: she's an
aspiring writer with a capital W—and she has a major crush on Robbie. When a
guest of the family is raped and can't identify the violator, Briony tells cops
that she saw Robbie do it, with disastrous, life-altering consequences for the
couple and herself. That scene, told in turns from each players' point of view,
is beautifully acted by Knightley (every bit the snob unexpectedly in love with
a po' boy) and especially by Ronan, who nails the high-wire demands of playing a
girl whose actions fall somewhere between naivete and outright malice. It's also
beautifully shot—gorgeous country side complete with hidden ponds, overripe
florals and jewel tones turn the upper-class setting into a fairy tale world
that will not last.

The rest of the movie deals with Briony's efforts to yes, atone, for her
sins—first by joining the World War II effort as an 18-year-old nurse (played by
an adequate Romola Garai) and then as a dying novelist (by the always
good Vanessa Redgrave) who makes one last attempt to set things right, in
the wrongest way possible. Here, the movie doesn't match the first half of the
movie for emotion and weight. Blame Knightley and McAvoy, who don't have the
chops or screen presence to carry the love story through past its starry-eyed
beginning. There are some standout scenes, however. One involves a sole moment
of grace that Briony experiences with a dying French soldier and the other is a
grandiose, Oscar-bait scene in which Robbie, sent to the war in exchange for
release from prison, walks through the beach at Dunkirk, France, where thousands
of retreating soldiers await ships to take them home. During a 5 ? minute
uninterrupted tracking shot that must have been hell to choreograph, Robbie
walks past soldiers fighting, a chorus singing hymns, people fixing car engines,
horses being shot. Playing like carnival of the absurd and tragic, the scene is
a jaw-dropping achievement that in itself is worth the price of admission.