I don't often agree with film critics about the value of certain films. Take, for example, the film Lost in Translation. Every critic in the known universe practically peed themselves with delight over that movie; as for me, I was so bored I thought about shooting my own self in the head, just to have something to do ... and to give me an excuse not to watch the rest of it.
Even though I'm too plebeian to appreciate "high art" (apparently), I continue to watch all those lauded films; sometimes it's almost an exercise in masochism (Closer, The Magdalene Sisters), but other times I catch something beautifully breathtaking, a movie I never would have watched had I not seen its name in the list of nominations.
I'm telling you now, YOU MUST SEE Atonement.
I saw it this afternoon, and it is still with me as I write this, haunting me in the lovely way that To Kill a Mockingbird does, or sending me into a research frenzy, like The Last King of Scotland did.
Though I'm not a Keira Knightly fan (in spite of her appearance in two of my all-time favorite movies), I must admit that she acquitted herself well here. She does seem to be the go-to girl for period dramas these days. Here, she fits perfectly into the scenery of 1930-40s England; she certainly does have the ideal body type for the clothing of the era. Her role is almost tertiary; her character rarely acts, but tends instead to RE-act, often so quickly that she blows past the point of no return, burning bridges with passion and without regret.
Her love interest is played by James McAvoy, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, after his performances in Starter for Ten and The Last King of Scotland (who would have thought it of Mr. Tumnus?).
Before I speak of his performance, I have to make mention of the technical excellence of this film. Now, I'm not one to rave over camera movement and sound editing and light direction; as one whose primary interest is theater, I have no experience--or, to be truthful, interest--in those aspects of film-making.
Yet even as cinematography troglodyte, I can recognize genius when I see it, and this film is IT.
The score incorporates the old-fashioned click-clunk of a typewriter as its rhythm section; its importance to the film is revealed almost immediately. I found myself listening for it; the keys introduce Briony, the main character, who is an aspiring playwright at the beginning. I don't often get symbolism--I'm not too good at abstract concepts--but the importance of these sounds became apparent even to me, that's how good the film is.
The lighting almost tells a story by itself: impossibly warm sunlight lays a sheen of innocence over the earlier scenes; the sun is blocked with storming, angry clouds during wartime; hospitals are lit with an almost greenish, khaki tinge, mimicking the shade of a dying soldier's face; the end blocks out all light except that which shines on the speaker's face, relegating all external stimuli to dormancy to force the viewer to make an almost-uncomfortable eye contact with the lone face on the screen. It's truly the most magnificent use of light I've seen in a movie, and I caught myself focusing on it throughout, turning it over in my mind, looking for its symbolism (which it most certainly does have). It is as important a character as the ones played by the lead actors.
Speaking of whom: James McAvoy. He seems so young at the beginning, and he's meant to be. A Cambridge student who's contemplating medical school, his face is smooth and unlined, and the sun highlights the hair on his face; it looks like he's never shaved. His face is open, his thoughts written across his features, and he uses this gift to full advantage. There is one scene in which both the emotional and physical tolls of war meet and mold themselves in his expression, and it almost seems as if he gains thirty years in a few seconds. It was such a gorgeous moment, so full of feeling, that my own breath came in short gasps and my own heart began to thump in sympathy.
By all rights, though, this film belongs to Saoirse Ronan, who plays young Briony, the one who sets in motion the events which tear the lovers apart, who later seeks amends from those she has wronged. Like McAvoy, Ronan is also mutely expressive; emotions gather in her eyes and pour themselves across her face without restraint. She's exactly like a real-life child, not one of those precocious prodigies who come equipped with one-liners and adult sensibilities (that I hate).
Throughout the film, Briony seeks redemption, craves forgiveness, hungers after propitiation. The movie, itself, is a stand-in for that which she so desperately needs: atonement.
*in spite of the high-falutin' language, and the fact that this is what my dad calls "one of those artsy-fartsy movies," seriously, you HAVE to see it.