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Nicola Mostyn falls hopelessly in love with an emerald green frock

Published on September 11th 2007.


It is the summer of 1935. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a precocious, privileged 13 year old who is putting the finishing touches to a play she intends to perform with her cousins, hoping to impress the handsome Robbie (James McAvoy) the housekeeper’s son who has been educated out of his class (and accent) thanks to the generosity of the Tallis family.

The first half of this film feels like sinking into a blissful oasis

Robbie, though, holds passionate feelings for Briony’s sister, the beautiful Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and, despite her initially equivocal behaviour, it’s clear that she has feelings for him, too,

Clear to the audience, that is, because in the sumptuous first half of this adaptation of Ian McEwan novel by Joe ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Wright, we are afforded the luxury of seeing the same events from different perspectives. So it is that we watch, rewound and replayed, an encounter between Cecilia and Robbie by a fountain which, when spied by the fanciful Briony, appears decidedly disturbing. As we watch Briony move from the window, her suspicions about Robbie’s character raised, we then rewatch the scene and are allowed to know the true, innocent event of which Briony remains in ignorance.

It is this misunderstanding which lies at the heart of the film as several slip ups, each no more than a minor inconvenience on their own, come together to put Robbie in the frame for a crime he didn’t commit. This sees he and Cecelia torn away from the love they’d only just acknowledged.

Jump to four years later and Atonement becomes a rather different film. But then by 1939 the world was a very different place. Robbie is a solider in France, awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk. Cecilia is a nurse, tending the wounded and waiting for Robbie to come back to her. Briony (now played by Romola Garai) has ditched her Cambridge plans to become a nurse, too, in the hope of making some kind of atonement for the mistake she now realises has caused untold grief to Robbie and her sister.

The first half of this film feels like sinking into a blissful oasis. With such beautiful, languid scenes it is a joy to watch these characters play out their mannered, aesthetically pleasing lives, from Celia’s coltish beauty as she dresses for dinner in a stunning emerald green frock to the bumptious chocolate manufacturer friend of their brother’s, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who looks exactly like he sounds. Saoirse Ronan is particularly compelling as the intense, pensive child who is older than her years and James McAvoy is just the right side of handsome to play the working class boy made good.

By the second half, everything has lost its lustre. The sisters are tired, wan, worn down. The picturesque beauty of the country cottage is replaced by scenes of Robbie and his two corporals tramping round Dunkirk, homesick and painfully tired (I’m informed that there is a politically correct anachronism in these scenes, where one of Robbie’s corporals is black. My friend whose military history is better than mine, reckons there were few black soldiers at Dunkirk).

Even here, though, the cinematography is no less ambitious: a long take in which thousands and thousands of men gather on the beach, a Ferris Wheel looming surreally overhead is mesmerisingly beautiful.

Despite the unarguable grandeur of the cinematography, what lies at the core of Atonement is (or should be) the love affair; the question of whether Cecelia and Robbie will ever get the chance that Briony stole from them. Here the film gets a little tricksy and, with its flashbacks and non-linear scenes, it threatens to be a bit too clever.

One scene which should have been loaded with emotion comes over as strangely unsatisfying and odd, although a final segment in which Briony appears as an elderly famous novelist (played by Vanessa Redgrave) makes sense of it all. Despite this, I can’t help but feel that, having been set up so dramatically, the thwarted love affair doesn’t quite make good on its promise.

It might be that the film’s virtue is also its vice. Atonement is beautiful, clever, ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable but the magnificence of the scenes overshadows, slightly, the emotional punch of the love story. It’s surely a testament to the director’s previous experience on a costume drama that I went home thinking, not of Robbie and Cecilia’s tragic love, but of where I could get hold of that Keira Knightley dress.

Atonement (15) is out now on general release

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