Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday Movie Madness -- "Atonement"

Based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, Atonement is set in England in 1935, precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) lives on her family's country estate with her mother, brother and sister, Leon (Patrick Kennedy) and Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Cecilia is home for the summer from Cambridge where she had been studying with the housekeeper's son, Robbie (James McAvoy).  The Tallises are being visited by young relatives (young twin boys and the lovely redhead, Lola (Juno Temple) from the north, whose parents are in the process of divorcing and Leon’s chocolatier friend Paul (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Paul keenly follows Hitler's political advance and predicts war.  He plans to sell chocolate bars to the British military to give to their soldiers.  While he tries to amuse Pierrot and Jackson, Paul and Lola flirt. Cecilia and Robbie have an uncertain relationship, but a certain romantic chemistry exists between them.  It can also be said that Briony has a crush on the handsome Robbie.  One day, Briony witnesses from her bedroom window an exchange between Cecilia and Robbie at the fountain in the garden, when Robbie accidently breaks a vase and sends a piece of broken pottery into the water and Cecilia strips down to her slip and dives in after it.  Because she does not understand the dynamics of what she sees, she misunderstands the exchange she feels betrayed and the seeds of mistrust of Robbie are planted.

Embarrassed by his behavior earlier in the day, Robbie tries to write an apology note to Cecilia. One of the drafts includes a sexually charged declaration of his love for her. He then writes a more formal apology he intends to deliver to her.  However, he accidentally slips the sexually charged note to Briony to deliver (because he believes it will be less embarrassing if delivered by way of Briony) when they meet in the drive on their way to the house. When he realizes what he has done, he calls out to Briony but she does not hear him.  Back in the house, Briony reads the note and is scandalized. She gives the note to Cecilia but later confides to Lola that she believes Robbie is a dangerous sex maniac.  When Robbie arrives at the house, he discusses the note with Cecilia and they admit their love for one another.  They make passionate love in the library, but are interrupted when Briony walks in on them.  At dinner, it is discovered that Pierrot and Jackson have run away. Everyone goes off to search for the boys. While hunting through the dark, Briony stumbles upon Lola being raped.  Once seen by Briony, the man escapes into the night.  Briony insists to first Lola and then the police that Robbie was the culprit and brandishes the sexual letter to Cecilia as evidence.  Only Cecilia protests his innocence.  When Robbie returns (with the twins), he is arrested for rape.  Tried and convicted, he is sent to prison.  Four years later he is released into the British army and makes up part of the British Expeditionary Force that is sent to northern France in an attempt to halt the Nazi advance.

In northern France, a wounded Robbie and two fellow soldiers attempt to make their way to Dunkirk, where the remnants of the BEF are to be evacuated after the Nazis rout their forces and the French.  Several weeks earlier, before he left London, he saw Cecilia (who is now a nurse in London) again.  She remained true to him for four years and begs him to “come back to me.” She reveals is estranged from family over her love for Robbie and belief in his innocence. She gives him a photograph of a seaside cottage near Dover that they can retire to. It will give him strength as he struggles towards Dunkirk.

Briony, now 18 (and played by Romola Garai) has decided not to study at Cambridge and is herself training to be a nurse.  When Briony sees a newsreel announcing Lola’s engagement to Paul, she is wracked with guilt over falsely accusing Robbie of the rape.  Briony goes to see Cecilia to admit her guilt and state her willingness to do whatever it takes to atone for her sins and clear Robbie's name.  Robbie is in Cecilia's apartment when she gets there.  Although they are angry with her, they tell her what she needs to do to make things right. She agrees, then leaves as Cecilia and Robbie are intimate for one last time before he is shipped to France.

The move then flashes forward to 1999 and Briony (now Vanessa Redgrave), in her late seventies and dying of vascular dementia, is a famous novelist and being interviewed for her new book, Atonement.  What that interview reveals would spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, so I’ll stop here.

Atonement was nominated for six Academy Awards and took the statuette for best score.  Although the acting, cinematography and production were lovely, this is definitely not a feel good film and left me feeling a bit empty.  As I haven’t read the book, I can’t say for certain, but think that it may have been best left a novel.  On a scale from 1 to 5, I give this film a 3.5 and do recommend it just because of the beautiful pre-war English countryside and the acting talents of the entire cast.

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