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.
In this Britney-and-Beyonce-obsessed age 'tis a wonder anyone other than an art history buff knows who Rembrandt is let alone that other Dutch painter guy--what'shisname Vermeer. In fact very little is known about the 17th-century painter who died in debt at 43 and left most of his works including his most famous of a young girl wearing a pearl earring shrouded in mystery. Girl With a Pearl Earring is director Peter Webber's adaptation of the 1999 Tracy Chevalier novel that spun a gauzy fiction about the painter's unrequited obsession with a young maid who became his muse and the subject of said painting. The maid in question is Griet (Scarlett Johansson) whose tilemaker father's accident forces their family into poverty and her into servitude--and it's no picnic. Morose henpecked Vermeer (Colin Firth) hides in his studio away from the household which includes the puffy and pampered wife (Essie Davis) he keeps eternally pregnant; her tyrannical domineering mother (Judy Parfitt) who brazenly solicits work for Vermeer from patrons like rich lecher Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson); and a multitude of Vermeer brats. Full-lipped and nubile the servant Griet becomes the artist's secret obsession--he spies on her cleaning his studio teaches her about painting (or at least how to make his paints) and seduces her while painting her portrait behind his wife's back.
With little dialogue to speak Johansson's Griet is a study in silence. Her wide-eyed earnest stares and Mona Lisa smile do the talking for her proving a picture certainly can say a thousand words. She may get more attention for Lost in Translation but this is her vehicle. Johansson's quiet understated performance makes the others look that much more overstated--Wilkinson's vulgar mustache twirling art patron for example and Davis's jealous and ranting Catharina Vermeer for another although they too are very solid turns. Firth's Vermeer fades into the background surrounded by these big personalities understandably and fittingly so; he's the brooding artist who'd be far happier left alone to gaze upon his subject. Although the master and the servant never do much more than exchange looks the sensual energy between them is palpable.
This movie is beautiful absolutely stunning--it's as if cinematographer Eduardo Serra saw Vermeer's life through the artist's eyes and that vision comes through in exquisitely framed and lit shots. Some scenes--of young lovers walking along a tree-lined canal in fall light beaming across the girl's face as she cleans the studio's beveled windows--are literally breathtaking. Just as an artist's work is tactile so does this film feel--in the sounds of a heavy knife chopping vegetables and a spatula grinding pigment into paste…volumes are spoken in the clean white crispness of Griet's bonnet. First-time helmer Webber occasionally allows the camera to hang too long (a lip-licking scene in extreme close-up for example) but he creates a fully enveloping period and confidently leads his cast through this fairly thin story. You can pretty much guess what you're in for with a movie about a 17th-century Dutch master; knowing that if there's any criticism to be made it's that the pic feels every bit of its 95 minutes long. A lovely score by Alexandre Desplat also deserves a mention although it sometimes overwhelms scenes with unwarranted portentousness.