Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Atonement (2007)

Costume dramas with Keira Knightley come by the bucket load, but few come as crushingly sad as Atonement. Based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name, Atonement tells the story of how the romance between the bright young groundskeeper/Cambridge graduate Robbie (James McAvoy) and the daughter of a wealthy English family, Cecelia (Keira Knightley) is ripped apart by unfounded accusations from her younger sister, the harsh realities of the second World War and a sprinkling of the gulf between the classes.

Joe Wright does everything right here. The film looks especially beautiful in all its locales. the stately homes in the English countryside are lavish, bright and suitably saturated in the hazy colour of late summer and the dirty streets and hospitals of a mid-war London are suitably tarnished and covered in a bleak dusting of hopelessness. One set in particular stands out, and not just because it was shot down the road from me at Redcar beach: Dunkirk. Wright took on the monumental task of creating an almost purely practical set for the scene, and documents the desperation, pain and occasional glimmers of hope of the evacuation in one extended tracking shot that includes near enough 1000 extras from the local area.

The story unfolds with a number of flash forwards, which are quickly rewound to see how we got there, and it paces the film magnificently. Central to the major rift that separates Robbie and Cecelia is a moment where both the audience and Cece's sister are left unsure of what they've seen, and telling the story with quick darts forward in time leaves enough room for contemplation as to what you've seen and what you explicitly didn't see. The flash-forward mechanic is powerful. It'll smash you right in the emotions and really leave you questioning whether the instigator of all these problems has really atoned for their actions.

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are outstanding as the troubled couple, with the former establishing himself as one of Britain's biggest upcoming things (he's since starred as the lead in XMen First Class and Wanted) and the latter continuing to mature into her roles and mold her craft into something fantastic. Joe Wright's direction and storytelling is something to be envied, with set design, shooting technique and direction clearly signposting the descent from the hazy otherworldly dream of the stately home to the dirty and real world where everything doesn't end up perfect. The visuals alone tell a story of heartbreak, regret and resentment. In particular, Wright should be proud that he manages to deliver the most powerful wartime beach scene this side of Saving Private Ryan.

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