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.
When Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) breaks up with Suzy (Michelle Ryan) he develops a sort of superpower: He can freeze time. He also develops chronic insomnia. Nevertheless Ben takes a job at a supermarket and meets an attractive checker Sharon (Emilia Fox) as well as other clerks who play games to keep themselves amused. Ben’s trick for passing the time is freezing time and stripping women to admire their bodies but not in a sleazy way. He gives those who deserve their comeuppances a healthy kick as well. Cashback follows boy-meets-girl patterns but rather than rely on a high concept it turns out that even this super power isn’t enough to resolve even a simple misunderstanding. The story explores these possibilities with a fascinating and simple device as we learn about Ben’s character through his exploration of frozen time. Biggerstaff (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) is a perfect leading man. He’s not the adorable bumbling Brit or the lifeless stuffy type; he’s just a modest kid with a deep appreciation and love for women. He may be better at expressing this in his own time than in real time but Biggerstaff imbues Ben with enough intelligence and strength that we completely understand him. We absolutely never think he’s evil for undressing women. Meanwhile Fox (Keeping Mum) is a dream girl. Never dolled up or oh-so-cute her Sharon is just an exasperated working girl who wants to find her dream man. She’s a real person working her way through life and when she faces the slightest disappointments you want to give her a great big hug. Ryan (TV’s new Bionic Woman) is the ultimate manipulative bitch. She is so angry at the world you know it’s better for Ben to be alone. When she tries to come back into his life however she’s not the overt villain. She’s more about how a person can try to weasel their way back into their exes’ lives. The other characters play more caricatures but still relatable. The goofy stock boys the stodgy boss and others fill in the cast like a Kevin Smith movie. Cashback is an example of how unique an independent film can be. In a studio’s hands this would be Clockstoppers with a bad-guy caper. Instead we get a brilliant masterpiece from first-time director Sean Ellis fully fleshed out from his acclaimed short. The director lets the story tell itself rather than using tricks and stunts and finds clever ways to play with the time freezing for laughs. Still the film never takes itself too seriously. For their part the frozen-time sequences are just magical with little to no CGI. The actors are mostly standing completely still on their own accord. You might catch someone waver but you totally suspend disbelief because there are no frills. There are also wonderful transitions between time as Ben’s past and present bleed seamlessly and artistically into one another. Most importantly the voyeuristic moments with the unclothed women are some of the classiest and sexiest on screen. Ellis films women in the most flattering light always admiringly never exploiting. Cashback is expert filmmaking pure and simple.