Not since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has there been a novel so faithfully modified for the big screen. Atonement, adapted from the popular 2001 novel by British author Ian McEwan—sometimes called Britain’s greatest living novelist—perfectly captures the tone of the novel reproducing many scenes and much of the dialogue directly from the book.
Set in pre-World War II England Atonement begins as an idyll. A rich family with two daughters, the fetching and flirty Cecelia (Keira Knightley) and 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan), are vacationing at their rural country home. The handsome son of the family’s housekeeper Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) is the object of affection for both girls, but he only has eyes for Cecelia. When Briony catches the two in a passionate embrace she is overcome by jealousy. To keep the young lovers apart she impulsively comes up with a childish, but devastating plan to accuse him of a crime he didn’t commit.
There are serious repercussions to her impulsive of jealousy and years later she must atone for her actions.
Leading the cast is James McAvoy in a role that should catapult him to the ranks of a-list stardom. His emotionally rich take on Robbie follows the character from youthful innocence to the hardened edge of someone who was forced to grow up too quickly. There’s a range here he has never displayed before and it is one of the best performances of the year. Knightley—who looks like she was born to play 30s era flappers—is her usual charismatic self and brings much sexual energy to her scenes with McAvoy. And yes, for fans of the book, the green dress is very much on display.
Atonement is an epic tale disguised as a human drama. At its heart it is a love story, but through the trio of main characters—Robbie, Cecelia and Briony—it also tells us of the class structure of mid-century England, how deceit and remorse can ruin a life and how, sometimes, love can win out. Directed with raw power and compassion by Joe Wright, the movie is chock full of big ideas but never loses sight of the romance that is at the core of the film.
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