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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Atoning for the modern romance movie

A romantic film which makes you say more than "awww"

Published: January 18, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

dc0118084.jpgDirector of Oscar-nominated Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright, gives audiences yet another intelligent interpretation of a literary classic with Atonement, a devastating tale of love lost in a single lie.

The film, based on the novel by acclaimed British writer Ian McEwan, opens at the Tallis mansion in the lush English countryside shortly before World War II.

The story centers around the two unique Tallis sisters, curious pre-teen playwright Briony, and bold wild-child Cecilia. With an emotionally distant father who spends long hours at the office in London, and a lonely, superficial mother, the daughters are left to pursue their own amusement.

While Briony revels in her own imaginative dramas, Cecilia encounters tension in her interaction with Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son and Mr. Tallis’s adopted charity case. The apparent agitation between the two Cambridge graduates has less obvious roots, however, and viewers are left to ponder whether Cecilia’s supposed dislike masks a greater affection.

What begins as a mundane day of poolside cigarettes and cocktails quickly shifts to one marked by intrigue and tragedy, as plots of hidden desire, sex, missing persons, and accusations of rape ensue.

These events serve merely as triggers for the indefinite pain that Robbie and Cecilia will come to bear as four years bring war, and with it, more reasons to pull harder on a cigarette and drink more whiskey.

Reality strikes these two young lovers hard, physically separated by battlefields and daily casualties. Robbie fights for survival in occupied France as Cecilia journeys to London to work as a nurse. Robbie’s lone hope in the midst of the war’s desperation lies in a photo of a white-painted cottage on the English coast, which he plans to visit with Cecilia.

James McAvoy, who plays the male lead character of Robbie, is nothing short of brilliant. He creates chemistry all on his own. The beautiful Keira Knightley, as the vivaciously independent Cecilia Tallis, compliments McAvoy well. While her performance in Pride and Prejudice opposite Matthew Macfadyen left audiences with a feeling of “awwww,” Atonement strives to have a greater impact.

Familiar tensions run higher, conflicts prove more violent, loss brings more devastation, and yes, even the sex scene warrants praise. Rarely does a film capture such raw, yet subtle desire. Atonement will leave you wishing you owned an old British library, if only for the reward of possessing bookshelves to throw a loved one up against.

Saoirse Ronan plays the younger Briony Tallis with precision: perfectly annoying, controlling, bratty, and just as McEwan wrote her. Romola Garai, previously seen in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and Vanity Fair, stars as the 18 year-old Briony, and will have you hating her despite her apparent compassion towards wounded soldiers.

Atonement possesses the heartbreaking drama of Titanic without the three hours; it’s the passion of The Notebook without the sap. The film makes up for what the novel lacks, bringing breathtaking imagery to otherwise verbose depictions. The Boston Globe praises the film for its creative use of the long tracking shot in the scenes of Dunkirk, deeming it, “the cinematic equivalent of a no-hitter in baseball: rare, untouched, and very difficult to pull off.”

Read the book or not, see the film. Atonement’s secrets and sheer beauty brings substance to a movie industry rife with faults. It is a rarity to find such superb acting, and, even more so, to discover a film with such genuine themes. The impact of these 130 minutes will remain with you hours after you exit the theater.