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War and Remembrance

Joe Wright’s Atonement is beautifully shot and superbly acted, a tale of a tragically star-crossed romance that thrives on the breathless chemistry between its stars, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel by screenwriter Christopher Hampton, it begins on the highest of notes, as Robbie, the handsome son of a groundskeeper, playfully seduces Cecilia, the pretty, well-to-do daughter of a British family whose vast estate sprawls across the English countryside.

At first glance, Robbie and Cecilia are seen from a distance, through the eyes of 13-year old Briony (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer with an uncommonly vivid imagination. She witnesses them sharing what appears to be an embrace, followed by a bold sexual advance. Briony is horrified, not simply by the public nature of their display, but because she too harbors a passion for Robbie.

The reality of the situation is far more innocent, as we soon learn, but appearances make lasting (and sometimes wrongheaded) impressions. Briony’s perception is reinforced when she intercepts a note from Robbie intended for her older sister. It is a naked declaration of lust, written in jest and sent in error, but it confirms Briony’s darkest suspicions. She exacts her revenge by implicating Robbie in a crime he did not commit. Cecilia, who has only just awakened to her own deep-rooted yearning for Robbie, doesn’t believe a word of it.

Lives are destroyed, including Briony’s. Robbie is imprisoned for four years, released to enlist as a British soldier in the months preceding the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II. Cecilia has severed all ties with her family, and is working as a nurse in war-torn London. Briony, now 18, has done the same, as if tending to the injured will atone for her most damning indiscretion.

Removed from the precarious serenity of the English countryside, where the privileged casually discuss the advances of Nazi Germany over cocktails, Atonement gradually descends into maudlin melodrama, redeemed in the final act by a revelation that is at once shocking, heartbreaking and coldly realistic. Early on, it thrusts us into a world where servants are casually sacrificed to avoid the appearance of a scandal, and though Cecilia’s family is skilled in the art of burying their darkest secrets, they are hardly able to conceal their classist pretensions.

There is a magnificent tension in that world which culminates in an act of profound betrayal, but that tension is somehow missing from the battlefield where Robbie finds himself stranded, dazed and unjustly separated from his true love. He sees Cecilia at every turn, and hears her hopeful refrain in the wind -- “Come back to me,” she urges. There is an abbreviated reunion at a London hospital, a tearful moment played for every last ounce of sentiment, and a majestic shot of Robbie trudging along the shore at Dunkirk, yearning for Cecilia as the British army celebrates one of its most desperate escapes from disaster. It is an artful display of technical prowess, a testament to the talents of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, but nothing more -- the scene is gorgeous but otherwise pointless.

When Atonement returns, at long last, to the central conflict between Robbie, Cecilia and Briony, whose life has become an obsessive quest for forgiveness, it regains its footing. It concludes with a shattering epilogue that will be familiar to those who have read McEwan’s novel and has lost none of its power in translation. It is a fitting end to a classic love story that is faithfully but imperfectly rendered.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars