Atonement

Atonement

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

False accusations are a terrible thing. They can wreck lives: part lovers, send people to prison, destroy families. These stories are familiar to many of us. What makes Atonement interesting is that it looks not just at the sin, but at the sinner. Having done a terrible deed which she cannot undo, how can our heroine live with herself? She created the reality she cannot bear through fiction; can she, in turn, use fiction to bring about a form of redemption for all concerned?

Ian McEwan's Atonement was probably his greatest novel and has enjoyed an appropriate degree of success with both the literary establishment and the public. Fans of the book will be relieved to hear that this long-awaited film adaptation does it justice. Beautifully realised under the watchful eye of the author, who was an executive producer, it brings together the strong central themes of the book and develops them further with a subtle look at cinema itself and its influence on our understanding of reality.

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Although some parts (notably Robbie's march across France) had to be scaled back under pressure of time and limited budget, it maintains a powerful emotional impact, and there's a strong sense throughout that we are being given a glimpse into the lives of real people, not the usual two dimensional cinematic characters.

Central to this is James McAvoy's splendid performance as Robbie, the young handyman who falls foul of other people's passions and prejudices, confirming the promise he showed in The Last King Of Scotland. As Cecilia, the woman with whom he falls passionately in love, Kiera Knightley isn't quite as sharp, but her limited acting powers are more than compensated for by inspired direction which delivers the language of their love through myriad tiny gestures, astutely observed and brilliantly edited.

The trio is completed by Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony, a former television actress who handles her complex role with an assurance which belies her tender years. Though Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave do a fine job in extending the role, it's Ronan who really gives Briony presence and who enables us to feel some sympathy for her despite the terrible thing she does.

Atonement the film does break away from the book in certain small ways, notably its ending, though not in a manner which transgresses the bounds of the story or compromises its power. There are small details of other characters' relationships which are underexplored, shifting the balance of our sympathies a little, particularly with regard to Briony's cousin Lola; in this way the film fails to achieve quite the moral and emotional depth of the book, but it can't really be faulted for this, because it's still a stand-out piece of cinema.

As in all McEwan's work, the locations are as important and as vividly drawn as any human character, and here they come to life in sumptuous detail. At its best, cinema draws the viewer into a complete world every bit as convincing as the real one, and it's fitting that that should happen here. You'll be lucky to see another film this year as absorbing and evocative as Atonement. Don't miss it.

Reviewed on: 01 Sep 2007
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A young couple are torn apart by a confused girl's accusation, by class prejudice and by war.
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Chris ***

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan

Starring: Kiera Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave, Juno Temple

Year: 2007

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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