�Atonement� is, quite simply, one of the best movies of the year. It begins in 1935, in the summery sun-dappled, unhurried countryside of one of England�s statelier mansions. Briony Tallis (Saoirise Ronan), a pale-eyed adolescent with wispy wheat-blonde hair has written her first play, a melodrama called �The Trials of Arabella.� It is, she explains, �about how love is all very well, but you have to be sensible.�
Unfortunately �sensible� is the last thing Briony is on one hot, hazy midsummer�s night when everything that can go wrong does. Horribly.
Based on Ian McEwan�s immaculately observed and rightly lauded novel, this haunting, heartbreaking film hangs on a simple lie, told by an imaginative, angry and neglected child, that ruins three lives: her gorgeous older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley;, the family housekeeper�s bright, handsome son, Robbie (James McAvoy); and, eventually, Briony herself (played at 18 by Romola Garai, then as an elderly famous novelist by Vanessa Redgrave).
Director Joe Wright (�Pride and Prejudice�) and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (�Dangerous Liaisons�) take us from the dubious security of England�s sheltered upper class to the terrors of World War II � most specifically, the evacuation at Dunkirk where the chaos echoes the madness of that bridge too far in �Apocalypse Now,� with its twinkly carnival lights and disoriented soldiers who, when Martin Sheen asks who�s in charge, answer, �Aren�t you?�
The horror of Dunkirk is one of those glorious set pieces you either take to or you don�t. Those familiar with the book consider it showy, but I found it breathtaking. In one long pan, Wright sweeps us through an obscene panorama of the dead and the maimed.
We hear the sound of gunshots and see horses falling and our first thought is: mercy killings. They are being put out of their misery. But no, these are healthy animals that can neither be put on the boats nor left for the Nazis. So there they stand there, gallantly, loyally, uncomprehendingly � almost like their human counterparts � as, one after another, their riders put a bullet in their heads.
Robbie �or rather, his battle-weary shell � limps past a mutilated merry-go-round, while in the distance, a muted ferris wheel still makes its appointed rounds as if all below were popcorn and cotton candy.
In �Atonement,� the past is not prologue as much as fate. And though Cecilia and Robbie�s love story is the film�s doomed romantic center, perhaps the most broken heart belongs to pitiful Briony, whose one childish gesture has left her cornered for life. Or would that be, from life?
Look for Oscar nominations all around, from actors, to director, to writer, to cinematographer, to picture. All well deserved.