Atonement (2007)

Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn, Benedict Cumberbatch

Directed by: Joe Wright

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Keira Knightley is louche and lovely in  Atonement

Like I Capture the Castle or The Go Between, Atonement begins like one of those movies about posh people languidly inhabiting a pre-war idyll where the phrase 'British summer' isn't an oxymoron and smoking is still cool. Everyone talks in forced, squeaky voices and nobody actually seems to be nice, not even our heroine, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a little kid with a big vocabulary and an even bigger imagination.

This stary-eyed child prodigy has just finished writing her first play when she witnesses a strange encounter between her elder sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and servant's son done good Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). She doesn't understand the meaningful gazes and undercurrent of longing as Robbie watches Cecilia emerge, half naked, from a fountain, and she finds it disturbing. Later that day, a sexually explicit letter Robbie mistakenly hands her to pass to Cecilia, and an accidental discovery of the pair in flagrante in the library, only confirms Briony's suspicion that Robbie is a 'sex maniac'. So when her cousin is raped while out alone in the grounds, she points the finger at Robbie, and Cecilia's lover is sent to prison for four years.

By the time he's set free, war has broken out, and the couple are torn apart once more. Meanwhile Briony, now realising her mistake, gives up a place at Cambridge to become a nurse. But can this act of atonement make up for what she's done, and heal the wounds that have ravaged her sister's relationship?

Star-crossed war time lovers from different social backgrounds are hardly a novel theme for a romance. But in the end, Atonement isn't a film about love, it's a film about writing. Robbie's use of the word 'cunt' – the worst word Briony can think of – shocks her more than his behaviour at the fountain, and is produced as proof positive that he must be a rapist. In prison and at war, his relationship with Cecilia is conducted by post, a fractured, disrupted exchange of hopes and dreams and despair across an ocean of pain. And, we later discover, the entire form of the film is driven by Briony's endless attempts to write and rewrite the story of Cecilia and Robbie – her true act of atonement in the end.

James McAvoy in Atonement

However, this scholarly, almost clinical approach, doesn't prevent Atonement from being a stunning and deeply moving film. The cinematography is outstanding – in particular, an immense tracking shot traversing the apocalyptic carnival bleeding its last onto the beaches of Dunkirk is like nothing I've seen before.

The performances are also great. James McAvoy seems to be in every other film released since 2005, but with every role he takes on, he grows in stature (although not in height – what a shrimp!), giving a career best here. And having proved herself too modern for the 18th century (Pirates/Pride and Prejudice) and too old fashioned to play a 21st century gal (Bend It Like Beckham), Keira Knightley has finally found her milieu in the 1930s, her skeletal elegance perfectly suited to the louche, Art Deco style of the period. And while she's still not a great actress (McAvoy and Romola Garai, who plays the older Briony, wipe the floor with her), she nevertheless gives a convincing performance here.

I'll confess I haven't read Ian McEwan's novel, on which the film is based, but I think that's probably a good thing as it allowed me to approach Atonement without any preconceptions, and lose myself in a film that is as gorgeous and glamorous as it's heart-breaking and shocking. Enthralling and profoundly moving, this is a film that takes a while to unfold and will linger in the mind afterwards – but trust me, it's time well spent.

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