Atonement (***)

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Atonement, based upon the novel by Ian McEwan, is about how the hasty actions of a young girl shatter multiple lives, including her own. It’s a romance, to a point, but it’s also haunting, bitter and heartbreaking. Two of its main characters are fools in love, and the third is younger, full of wit and creativity, but, she sees something that she doesn’t understand, and changes everything.

Joe Wright, the director of 2005’s winning version of Pride and Prejudice, re-teams with that film’s star Keira Knightley, alongside James McAvoy, to make a gorgeously photographed, exquisitely rendered, well-acted drama. Keira Knightley plays a privileged young lady named Cecilia Tallis, and James McAvoy plays Robbie Turner, the son of hired help, who grew up with Cecilia and in fact went to medical school on her father’s dime. Of course, they fall in love. Saoirse Ronan plays Cecilia’s younger sister Briony, a fiery little girl who writes plays and has a small crush on Robbie.

On a sunny afternoon, Briony sees Robbie and Cecilia by the fountain, and doesn’t understand what she is seeing. Later that night, she sees something else, and her imagination begins to work. Eventually, Robbie is accused of a crime by Briony. And we flash-forward several years, as these three people must now live with the consequences of Briony’s actions.

Pretty heavy stuff, and indeed, Atonement is not a light, giggly affair. The first act feels like one of those breezy British romance films about the class struggles, but there is a dark undercurrent, and as the film enters its second and third acts, it gets even bleaker. It still am not sure if Keira Knightley is a good actress or not, she was luminous in Pride and Prejudice, and here she’s just as lovely, but as far as her acting goes, she’s definitely the weak link in the cast. James McAvoy gives a very strong performance as Robbie, and helps make the tragedies of the film all the more tragic. The Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan’s role is very effective, pretty surprising when you learn that the actress is only thirteen! Romola Garai is not as good as Briony at age 18, but Vanessa Redgrave, in her brief role as an older Briony, gives a great performance, and makes the film’s narrative all the more twisty and complicated. Brenda Blethyn has a small role as Robbie’s mother, and I need to call out Benedict Cumberbatch’s unsettling performance as Paul Marshall, a chocolate maker with some unhealthy interests.

From a visual standpoint, Atonement is an artistic triumph. There is a tracking shot, for instance, at the beach at Dunkirk that lasts for five and a half minutes, and will probably have you holding your breath. It’s that good. The cinematography, by Seamus McGarvey, is beautiful and lush, and look at his use of colors, how they’re mostly drab and muted, except for the rare outbursts of strong colors like green, the color of Cecilia’s evening dress.

Atonement is a fascinating, depressing, great looking movie.

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