Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
While passing through Cairo during a sabbatical from the priesthood following World War II Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) receives an offer from Semelier Ben Cross) a collector of rare antiquities to join a British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya where a Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed. Although Merrin has lost his religion (he left the church after being forced by the Nazis to commit atrocities against people of his parish) the skilled archeologist accepts the mission out of curiosity: The pristinely preserved church dates back more than 1 000 years before Christianity even reached the East African plain. Once there Merrin anxiously heads to the excavation sight and enters the partially buried church to discover it has been vandalized--or so he thinks; a large wooden cross has been broken and hung upside down. He also encounters Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco) who runs a local hospital and informs the men that the last man in charge of the excavation had gone mad and was now in a sanitarium in Nairobi. The mystery thickens when a local boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney) shows signs of satanic possession. The Turkana blame the mysterious church for the unexplained supernatural activity including a woman's delivery of a Satan-like maggot-covered still born infant. Soon tension mounts between the Turkana and the British troops stationed there.
Poor Skarsgard. To his credit the veteran actor tries his best to add a dash of distinctiveness to his underdeveloped character Father Merrin. Skarsgard (King Arthur) supplies Merrin with an air of attitude a sort of aloofness that screams I don't owe anyone anything. Armed with brute strength and fearlessness (he moves a large concrete slab without breaking a sweat and crawls through unlit basements without ever flinching) Merrin is practically transformed into sexy religious superhero. But Skarsgard even can't escape the silly dialogue that explains what is self-explanatory. "If everyone died who buried them?" Merrin asks aloud outside a cemetery where a plague supposedly whiped out the village's population. Scorupco (Reign of Fire) meanwhile doesn't inject anything extra into her rather forgettable role as Sarah a rather sweet but boring physician. Her metamorphosis in an identical looking Regan MacNeil form the original 1973 Exorcist however pumps some much needed thrills into what's otherwise lackluster horror. One of the most memorable performances comes from Alan Ford (Brick Top Polford form Snatch) who plays a perpetually drunk archeologist with a putrid skin ailment. Ford's rendition of Jeffries is so alarmingly disgusting that it makes Lucifer look like a sweetie pie.
The best thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is its deceptively promising opening set in Africa in the mid 400s. It's an eerie scene bound to make audiences' hair stand on end as a lone bedraggled priest slogs through a dry and dusty plain littered with millions of corpses nailed to upside-down crosses. But in its post-World War II setting the film suffers a setback both in storytelling and visuals. The film was originally directed by Paul Schrader who replaced helmer John Frankenheimer who died before filming began. But producers reportedly thought Schrader's version wasn't frightening enough and handed the reins over to Renny Harlin (Driven) in hopes he would turn out a more spine-chilling rendition. But sadly there is no chilling of the spine to be experienced here. Harlin uses horror film clichés to spook the audience like the faithful light-going-out-in-dark-settings scenario that the film feels more like an episode of Scare Tactics. Harlin's special effects are laugh-out-loud funny too including his inane man-eating CGI hyenas with beaming blue eyes. The beasts move about the screen as if they have no weight or substance to them. What makes those cartoony hyenas even sillier though is the fact that their presence is not needed (they're hardly scary) or even explained which pretty much sums up the film's biggest problem: The spotty story leaves too many questions unanswered. The script credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher and later revised by Alexi Hawley is so vague it's irritating.