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Fragile love

Movies | Atonement is a mature and heartbreaking romance

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

Anybody who tells you that Atonement is a love story either didn't see the movie or really disliked it. Joe Wright's adroit adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel is less about enduring love (the title of another McEwan book) than it is about fragile love.

"The story can resume," writes Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) desperately, after 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) misunderstands the lower-class Robbie's passion for her aristocratic older sister. Briony sets off a chain of events that thrusts distance, class, and prison bars between Robbie and Cecilia (Keira Knightley).

Love for Robbie and Cecilia is not intimate but distant, and thus perfect and unattainable.

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This mature and heartbreaking treatment of romance might earn the film some attention all by itself (it just won the "Best Drama" Golden Globe), but Joe Wright's astonishing skill with the camera pushes Atonement from the realm of the merely interesting to the sublime.

As he did in his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Wright never lets a second of footage go to waste. He knows when to use symmetry, pressed sheets, and acres of spotless white to describe the character of the head nurse in Briony's hospital ward, and when to extend a cigarette in lieu of an olive branch. And amid all the beautiful flashbacks to happy rural England, Wright has set like a land mine a single five-minute-long Steadicam take of the shores of Dunkirk, with all the attendant misery of World War II.

Atonement is rated R for its images of war wounded and for sexuality, including possibly the dirtiest word in the English language, which becomes a plot focal point. It's a beautifully rendered and conceived film for grownups, and possibly not for all of them. This story is hopeful in a way that seems hopeless, relying on the beauty found in a destroyed world to bear up against the grim reality of the present one. For Christians, the same hope so longingly expressed lies in the world to come.


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