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February 25, 2008 | by  | in Film |
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Atonement: Prestige For Prestige’s Sake

Atonement, by Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright, is a beautifully filmed, middle of road period romance with a war tacked on the end. Through its aspirations as a current Merchant Ivory equivalent, the film struggles to get away from period romance clichés (class struggle, standing on hills looking despondent etc).

The wealthy Tallis family enjoy a quiet life in the English countryside. Robbie Turner, the educated son of the family’s housekeeper, carries a torch for the eldest Tallis sister Cecilia. But as a romance between the two emerges, the jealous youngest sister Briony is compelled to interfere, going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is sent away far from his love and Briony is wrapped with guilt: seeking refuge through her writing she finds the path to her uncertain atonement.

Like The English Patient before it, Atonement is epic in scale, most noticeably in its expansive sets and exquisite cinematography. Its use of colour gives a vibrancy to its pre-World War II England setting and it becomes even more impressive in the scenes at Dunkirk, which are framed by a self-indulgent but impressive sequence that is among the best in current film.

Its calculated castings smack of the “who’s hot right now” mentality of an award-crazy Hollywood. James McAvoy coming off The Last King of Scotland was seen by many as Hollywood’s new British actor du jour and puts in a respectable showing as the working-class object of the two sisters’ affections, then later as the dejected soldier still longing for his love. The elder sister and love interest is played Keira Knightly, who continues to pass off looking listless as acting, but can only fall back on her looks while being out classed by the aforementioned McAvoy and the brief but memorable appearances of Brenda Blethyn, who reminds us that though she might be slumming it in by-the-numbers romance dramas, she still can be surprisingly proficient. Child actress Saoirse Ronan plays the youngest meddlesome sister but fails to avoid the common stiltedness that hinders young actors — here’s hoping her performance in Peter Jackson’s upcoming adaptation of The Lovely Bones is more convincing.

While it often feels like a disingenuous award-grabber like The English Patient, Atonement does have genuine moments of real beauty. So if you like period romances and can ignore the melodrama, then Atonement (or the similarly-themed but slightly better A Very Long Engagement) might be your cup of tea.

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