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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Atonement

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Atonement

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Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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As Elton John once sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” This saga of WWII Brits, a spurned pre-teen wannabe lover and jealous revenge proves that false words can have disastrous consequences when left to fester uncontested.

Snooty privilege has made most of the principals spoiled with lots of time on their hands. Sexual teasing and repressed lust soon get out of hand on the splendid English estate where the Tallis family resides.

Budding playwright Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is thirteen and has a crush on cook Grace Turner’s (Brenda Blethyn) son, Robbie, (James McAvoy) who is Cambridge-educated but decidedly working class. Cecelia, (Kiera Knightley) Briony’s older sister also has a smoldering crush on Robbie, but is old enough to do something about it. Using a fountain as pretense for a semi-nude display, the pair’s innocent but visually lascivious exploit is witnessed by a heartbroken Briony. When they are discovered in a clandestine coupling amid the library books, (after a disastrous hand-delivered message mix-up, C-word included, no less) Briony finds out that she can do something about it as well.

A small parallel story has rich chocolate factory owner Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch) lusting after Briony’s visiting underage cousin Lola (Juno Temple). Her subsequent rape by the cad is pinned on Robbie, with Briony as the only spiteful witness. Robbie is whisked away to jail and then to the Army on a type of plea bargain. Separated by Briony’s lie, the lovers’ lives will never be the same. Years pass and war erupts in Europe.

The war sobers everyone up, slapping the leisure out of them. Even Briony, now eighteen and referred to as Nurse Tallis (Romola Garai) comes to realize the destructive consequences of her “girl scorned” exploit. Is it too late to correct? She witnesses the real perpetrator of the rape marry his prey, effectively erasing his crime or further prosecution. Only Robbie carries the life-altering stigma, and Cecilia the burning love to follow him into harm’s way.

War in France is not pretty for the Brits and scenes of casual violence mixed with mundane activities like a carousel ride become surreal in a dreamy nightmarish sort of way. The evacuation of Dunkirk is skillfully shot but not explained in dialogue. The viewer is left to draw his own conclusions of why horses are being summarily executed (diseased), scrap piles burn (destroy anything useful before the Germans arrive) and a carousel operates in the distance (why not?). Cecilia is also aiding the war effort as a nurse on the home front while Robbie is stationed in France on the front line.

There’s an eventual sisterly confrontation and apology is unsatisfying as is the final revelation. Years later a repentant Briony (Vanessa Redgrave maintains the never-changing Briony hairstyle now) tries to pull off a tangible atonement that is a weak payoff for her disastrous assertions. In a televised interview (Anthony Minghella asks the questions) she spills all of the secrets that literally have eaten away at her – the character now has cancer- in an attempt to finally atone for the irreversible and unforgivable actions of her past.

Knightley’s Cecilia is both a tease and a push-over. Bitchy and spidery, you’ll wonder what Robbie was thinking in his unabated desire. Saoirse Ronan’s young Briony brings a spiteful glee to the spurned little wretch who opens her mouth at the wrong time with a devastating accusation and who keeps its shut far too long into the future to do any real good. Romola Garai, as the teenage Briony is a bland, weak olive branch, never timely enough to make any kind of difference. Vanessa Redgrave brings her distinguished presence into play as the older Briony, doing what she can to put a backbone in the habitually spineless character.

James McAvoy does an adequate job of looking tragic and victimized. His character has all of the self-determination of a tennis ball in play. Things happen to him while he is merely a witness. McAvoy has the right face for this type of bewildering life-shuffle.

Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey produces stunning, almost poetic cinematic compositions. Even the vulgarity of war is presented as if the principals were traipsing through a hauntingly aesthetic yet mad circus of bullets and fire. There’s beauty in the ugliness and it’s captured – no small feat – thanks to McGarvey’s skill.

Director Joe Wright seems to have a foot fetish and a Roshomon-like penchant for showing an event more than once. Slow to start, even slower to unfold, Atonement illustrates the too little too late cautionary tale that tries to educate the viewer about upper class proper British etiquette seething with sexuality, perversion, and injustice. Wright unveils some scenes twice, illustrating the importance of context and the unreliability of events that are solely visual in nature.

Based on the romance novel by Ian McEwan, the Claire/Robbie infatuation does not give the appearance of a great love here, only a forbidden lust in which the shamefully mistaken word hinted at above is rightly used. I had a hard time feeling anything for the couple other than bored resignation over male/female bodily functions. The Briony character was boring as well, made interesting only at the very end by Dame Redgrave.

Atonement is an ambitious effort, lushly photographed but unsatisfying in any meaningful way. Quite a letdown – not enough for Wright to have to atone for, but almost.