Friday, December 28, 2007

All's Fair in Love and War?

I was really excited about seeing Atonement without knowing much about it. I hadn't seen Pride and Prejudice, director Joe Wright's last film (also with Keira Knightley), and I didn't know the plot. All I knew is that critics were raving about this film that seemed to come out of nowhere. And you know what? They're right.

Atonement is a sweeping, swooning love story at its core, but it's also a suspense/thriller at times, as well as a devastating war film. It's so much more than some overwrought melodrama. Don't get me wrong, it is a melodrama, but a brilliant one. The story revolves around Cecilia (Keira Knightley), Robbie (James McAvoy), and Cecilia's younger sister Briony (what a great British name!). Briony is played by three different actresses at different ages, and all three are worthy of a supporting actress nomination. However, the one who got a Golden Globe nomination is 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan, and I think they got that right. She's phenomenal. Basically, Briony sees Cecilia and Robbie (who works for their wealthy family and is even patronized by them for school) being...amorous...and she thinks that he's trying to attack her or something and then wrongly accuses him of raping her young cousin. She knows it's wrong, but she wants to protect her sister.

So, Robbie goes to prison and gets out on the condition that he will serve in World War II. What a choice. While Robbie and Cecilia are not together much throughout the film, their love is so passionate and believable, a testament to the great acting of Knightley (never better - those miserable Pirates movies do her no justice) and especially McAvoy. It's one of the most beautiful love stories I've ever witnessed on film. Throughout the years, Briony must deal with what she's done, hence the title of the film. The war scenes are staggering. There is a breathtaking, seamless, uninterrupted five minute long shot that surveys the headquarters of the army on the beach. This shot swoops around the activity, effortlessly gliding above the action and weaving through it at times. Some people have criticized it for being needlessly excessive or showy. I totally disagree. I don't think I breathed during it. It's so moving, and it captures and summarizes the enormity of war in one shot. It's an astonishing technical and narrative achievement.

Briony is a writer, and composer Dario Marianelli ingeniously incorporates the sound of a typewriter into the score, which is already so exquisite. This is a phenomenal film, unquestionably one of the year's best, and it moved me very deeply. It's amazing for a film to live up to the hype and surpass expectations you didn't even know you had.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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