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Atonement for real

Today I did see Atonement. I had reservations about going to see it because I had an odd feeling I had already seen it yet could not remember when or where. I tried to bring up visions of watching it in a theater and they did not arrive. Good thing I went. I now suspect that I saw the trailer and then dreamed of it, creating quite a different movie in my head.

It's a terrific, beautiful movie. I have seen "beautiful" movies before. I have seen English countryside at the start of WWII before. I have seen the English country house before. Just the fact of "beautiful" isn't enough. It leaves me cold. This film was beautiful in unexpected ways, in the way it fills the senses, in the nuances of every little move and every little word. From the very first typewriter key clack the sounds are important and precise. Every little scene, every gesture, has meaning, even if we don't comprehend the meaning until later. It's a work of art.

The story begins with a 13-year-old girl, Briony, misinterpreting what she sees. She is upset by what she imagines is the housekeeper's son Robbie taking advantage of her sister Cecilia. What she believes and how she acts upon this belief leads to dire consequences.

The story is told a bit like a folded piece of paper, where we see a page ahead and then we slip behind to see what happened before, then we jump ahead again. We see Robbie in Dunkirk, a soldier, then slip back to his goodby to Cecilia. We watch as Briony tends wounded soldiers, then visits her sister to apologize for her actions as a thirteen-year-old. Incrementally the full story emerges, and is brought to a neat and beautifully-acted conclusion with Vanessa Redgrave as the aged Briony talking about her latest - and last - novel, the story she tried to tell so many times before.

Keira Knightly is Cecilia, and James McAvoy is Robbie. Knightly is so thin here that if her character weren't so strong it seems she would have flown off rather like a praying mantis. McAvoy reminded me, initially, of Tobey Maguire as spiderman. He seemed so young, so vulnerable. He ages well - or perhaps I should say matures - as a soldier. Even as a soldier dreaming of his true love he manages to be believable rather than sappy. Saoirse Ronan is the 13-year-old Briony, intense, gangly, girl-like, perfect as the gifted and imaginative child.

It was pure pleasure to watch such a perfect production.


Judith Lautner
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January 2012


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