Love, the hard way

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

FOR a cer­tain kind of critic, and in­deed for cer­tain dis­cern­ing au­di­ences, Atone­ment is fair game. Any­one sus­pi­cious of high- toned adap­ta­tions of English pe­riod nov­els, all those with an aver­sion to any­thing rem­i­nis­cent of Mer­chant Ivory, all those who feel that the ironic pos­si­bil­i­ties of the Bri­tish war film were ex­hausted by Richard At­ten­bor­ough in Oh! What a Lovely War, and all those who be­lieve that the moral ten­sions and sex­ual snob­beries of the posh English coun­try house drama were defini­tively ex­plored by Joseph Losey in The Go­B­e­tween, in Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover and Brideshead Re­vis­ited , are un­likely to take kindly to Atone­ment . If, on top of that, you re­mem­ber that Joe Wright also di­rected that ami­ably flip­pant ver­sion of Pride & Prej­u­dice two years ago, your barbs may be even sharper.

It is the mea­sure of Wright’s achieve­ment that Atone­ment , for all its echoes of other peo­ple’s glo­ries, is a strik­ingly orig­i­nal and a won­der­fully dar­ing film. It grips from the open­ing mo­ments.

Christo­pher Hamp­ton’s screen­play — a mas­terly ren­der­ing of Ian McEwan’s novel — ex­plores the bound­aries be­tween truth and false­hood, guilt and re­pen­tance, in scenes that com­bine a rar­efied in­ti­macy with pas­sages of epic power and grandeur.

In few films are act­ing, writ­ing, di­rec­tion and sheer vis­ual im­pact fused with such suc­cess in the ser­vice of a uni­fy­ing artis­tic vi­sion. The pre­vi­ous time this hap­pened for me was in Al­fonso Cuaron’s Chil­dren of Men, and there is a pow­er­ful re­minder of that film in Atone­ment when Wright gives us a daz­zling ex­tended track­ing shot through a bat­tle­field in France.

This film is in three parts, linked by the pres­ence of Bri­ony Tal­lis, played by three women at dif­fer­ent ages. We be­gin on the hottest day of the English sum­mer of 1935, when 13- year- old Bri­ony ( Saoirse Ro­nan) is writ­ing a play. ( The tap­ping of her type­writer is a re­cur­ring and un­set­tling mo­tif on the sound­track.) From the win­dow Bri­ony sees elder sis­ter Ce­cilia ( Keira Knight­ley) strip off her clothes and plunge into the gar­den foun­tain, watched by Rob­bie Turner ( James McAvoy), son of their house­keeper.

There is an in­no­cent ex­pla­na­tion but Bri­ony, with her writer’s in­stincts and ado­les­cent emo­tions, in­ter­prets things dif­fer­ently. Act­ing on a malev­o­lent im­pulse, she ac­cuses Rob­bie of a shame­ful crime, and by the end of the day the lives of all three have been changed for­ever.

The drowsy, erotic spells of sum­mer are abruptly bro­ken when the ac­tion moves to France and Rob­bie finds him­self among thou­sands of strag­gling Al­lied sol­diers await­ing res­cue on the beaches of Dunkirk. Th­ese wartime scenes, with their car­nage and des­o­la­tion, have a truly awe­some power. Rob­bie, hav­ing served four years in prison be­fore join­ing the army, is briefly re­united with Ce­cilia in a mil­i­tary hospi­tal, where she is work­ing as a nurse. By then they are lovers, but no con­ven­tional love scenes are needed to con­vey the un­con­sum­mated in­ten­sity of their pas­sion. Bri­ony, also a nurse ( and played now by Ro­mola Garai), is over­come with re­morse for her ac­tions and des­per­ate to make amends.

It would be un­fair to say much about the film’s fi­nal mo­ments, when Vanessa Red­grave plays Bri­ony in old age, and dur­ing a television in­ter­view about her ca­reer as a writer gives us a shat­ter­ing in­sight into her feel­ings. Only now do we grasp the depth and rich­ness of the story and the im­pli­ca­tions of McEwan’s nar­ra­tive.

It is a film about truth and lies, the way they are per­ceived and the coun­ter­vail­ing va­lid­ity of wis­dom and ex­pe­ri­ence. Th­ese mean­ings are ex­pressed not through the per­son­al­i­ties of the lovers — who, de­spite their rav­ish­ing pres­ence, are in many ways sec­ondary char­ac­ters — but through the eyes of Bri­ony. She has de­stroyed in­no­cent lives, per­haps her own, but for all her heed­less mal­ice, con­fu­sion and de­ceit we are un­able to blame her. Through three in­ter­lock­ing and beau­ti­fully judged per­for­mances, she be­comes the fo­cus of pity and com­pas­sion.

All the per­for­mances are flaw­less. McAvoy is a more ma­ture and con­fi­dent pres­ence since The Last King of Scot­land and Knight­ley, too re­fined and skit­tish as El­iz­a­beth Ben­net in Wright’s pre­vi­ous film, at­tains a mar­vel­lous seren­ity and poise. As Rob­bie’s mother, Brenda Blethyn is deeply af­fect­ing in her two quiet scenes with her son ( one of them imag­ined), and the sup­port­ing cast, in­clud­ing Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as a cocky in­dus­tri­al­ist and fam­ily friend, are all we would ex­pect in a film as in­tel­li­gent and metic­u­lously crafted as this. Atone­ment, for me, is the film of the year: a pro­found and mov­ing work of art, heart­break­ingly sad, con­sum­mately acted and cease­lessly beau­ti­ful to watch.

* * * P. S. I Love You has an in­or­di­nately long pre­credit se­quence. By the time the cred­its ap­pear you’ve forgotten you haven’t seen them and they come as a slightly dis­con­cert­ing in­ter­rup­tion if you hap­pen to be en­joy­ing the story. And in this film, from Richard LaGrave­nese, the story has con­sid­er­able charm and in­ge­nu­ity.

This may be the most se­duc­tive and ac­com­plished chick flick of the year. I know that term is frowned on. You may pre­fer to call P. S. I Love You a so­phis­ti­cated ro­man­tic weepie tar­geted to cer­tain fe­male au­di­ences. The most re­cent one I had seen was Evening , but a bet­ter com­par­i­son is with Ghost , mi­nus the su­per­nat­u­ral trap­pings.

Be­fore the cred­its are out, Holly ( Hi­lary Swank) and her hus­band Gerry ( Ger­ard But­ler) have had a mighty slang­ing match, kissed and made up, and started talk­ing about ba­bies. Holly is a real es­tate agent, Gerry a night­club singer, and they’re madly in love. Then sud­denly we’re at Gerry’s funeral. This is not the sort of so­phis­ti­cated ro­man­tic weepie where scenes of mor­tal ill­ness are per­mit­ted, so there’s none of the usual busi­ness with early symp­toms, med­i­cal con­sul­ta­tions or hospi­tal dra­mas.

Death is es­sen­tial to the story, but LaGrave­nese is de­ter­mined that it won’t darken the mood or even add the odd shade of grey. And let no one sup­pose that with Gerry out of the way we’ve seen the last of But­ler. He keeps turn­ing up in flash­backs and imag­ined sit­u­a­tions, as any good ro­man­tic lead would do, even when he has passed over to the other side.

More than that, Holly starts get­ting let­ters and mes­sages from him. Th­ese have a way of turn­ing up at the right ad­dress at the right time and are full of con­sol­ing ad­vice and cheer­ful in­struc­tions.

‘‘ Go and buy your­self a new out­fit,’’ is a typ­i­cal one. A cake ar­rives for Holly’s 30th birth­day and in­cludes a tape of Gerry’s voice, or­der­ing her to get out and ‘‘ cel­e­brate her­self’’. A hol­i­day in Ire­land is mys­te­ri­ously ar­ranged for Holly and her friends, and el­i­gi­ble new guys keep ap­pear­ing. A singer in an Ir­ish pub plays one of Gerry’s old songs. If I were Holly I’d have found all th­ese co­in­ci­den­tal hap­pen­ings a bit scary. In­deed, with a few tweaks LaGrave­nese’s screen­play ( writ­ten with Steven Rogers) could eas­ily be adapted as a su­per­nat­u­ral thriller, with Holly tor­mented by eerie vis­i­ta­tions.

But Swank is too ac­com­plished a per­former to mis­judge the mood. She has in­her­ited Ju­lia Roberts’s man­tle as the pos­ses­sor of Hol­ly­wood’s broad­est smile, and she knows how to in­vest her sun­ni­est moods with an en­dear­ing edge of anx­i­ety. The film is so drenched in Gerry’s Ir­ish blar­ney that only a happy end­ing is pos­si­ble. This comes down, I think, to a choice be­tween William ( Jef­frey Dean Morgan), who re­minded me of rugby league leg­end Mal Meninga, and Daniel ( Harry Con­nick Jr), who re­minded me of swim­mer Ian Thorpe. Pre­sum­ably Gerry would have ap­proved of ei­ther.

It’s a sweet and in­gra­ti­at­ing en­ter­tain­ment. In ad­di­tion to Swank, with her ir­re­sistibly chirpy frown, there are ex­cel­lent peo­ple in the smaller roles. I liked Hi­lary’s chums, the bub­bly Sharon ( Gina Ger­shon) and wacky Denise ( Lisa Kudrow), a ro­man­ti­cally choosy one who has a set of sud­den- death test ques­tions for any male prospect who turns up in her life. The post­card Ir­ish back­grounds make a nice change from Man­hat­tan and even Kathy Bates, who can give any film a glum and for­bid­ding tone if she sets her mind to it, is en­gag­ing as Holly’s mother.

P. S. I loved the scene with the wild Ir­ish dog.

Con­sum­mate per­for­mances, un­con­sum­mated love: Keira Knight­ley and James McAvoy are bril­liant in the ex­tremely mov­ing Atone­ment

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