Filmmakers need to make no ‘Atonement’ for this Oscar nominee

Thu, 01/31/2008 - 4:14pm
By: Emily Baldwin

Based on the best-selling novel by Ian McEwan, “Atonement” has been nominated for 53 awards and even won the award for “Best Motion Picture - Drama” at the Golden Globes in January. Later this month it will compete for the coveted “Best Motion Picture of the Year” award, as well as six other awards, at the Oscars. Having just finished reading the novel, I was immensely curious to see if the film would live up to the hype. Thankfully it does.

“Atonement,” set in England in 1935 and spanning 65 years, tells us the story of 13-year-old Briony Tallis – an aspiring writer. Briony and her family live a life of wealth and privilege in their enormous mansion, and on the warmest day of the year, the country estate takes on an unsettling hothouse atmosphere, stoking Briony’s vivid imagination. The fledgling author pens a play for her brother, in anticipation of his return home from the city, and enlists the help of visiting cousins as actors.

During a break in play rehearsals, Briony witnesses an interaction between her sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the educated son of the family’s housekeeper, that she doesn’t understand. What Briony witnesses is in fact the spark of a romantic relationship between the two, masked by an argument. Later that day Briony intercepts a correspondence from Robbie to Cecilia, further cementing her poor opinion of Robbie and his motives.

Briony’s wild imagination and her lack of understanding about adult relationships leads her to accuse Robbie of a crime of which he is innocent. Cecilia and Robbie declare their love for each other, but he is arrested and, with Briony bearing false witness, the course of three lives is changed forever.

Briony continues to seek forgiveness for her childhood misdeed. Through a terrible and courageous act of imagination, she finds the path to her uncertain atonement, and to an understanding of the power of enduring love.

So, what is it – you may ask – that is just so great about “Atonement”? Well, to start with, everything. The acting, the script, the direction and cinematography, the seamless adaptation from page to screen and the story itself all come together in a gorgeous symphony of what films should be.

It was thrilling to see what screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”) and director Joe Wright (who directed the most recent adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice”) did with McEwan’s incredible novel to bring it to life on screen. The talent it takes to put a 360-plus page book on screen without losing the story, the emotion or the underlying motives and subplots is witnessed in all the failed attempts from past efforts. With exception to the ending of the film, Hampton and Wright followed McEwan’s written direction to a T. Despite the change in the ending, I thought it was perfect for the film.

The acting was flawless. Briony is portrayed by Saoirse Ronan at age 13, by Romola Garai at age 18 and by Vanessa Redgrave as an old woman, and the similarities among all three actors is astounding. Keira Knightley proves that she’s more than just a pretty face with her portrayal as the strong-willed Cecilia Tallis and James McAvoy is brilliantly moving as Robbie Turner. Knightley and McAvoy share an undeniable chemistry on screen that expresses much of the film’s unspoken emotion, something that no script could pull off.

The cinematography, including the now-famous five or six minute tracking shot, is spotless with its grandiose simplicity and beauty.

If you’re looking to see an epic romance, “Atonement” is the film for you. Fascinating, heartbreaking and visually stunning, there’s no question in my mind why it’s up for Best Motion Picture of the Year.


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