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.
Based on the bestselling novel by Karen Joy Fowler Jane Austen revolves around a group of friends who decide to start a Jane Austen book club aptly named “All-Austen-All-The-Time.” In the group we have: the book club’s instigator Bernadette (Kathy Baker) a free-spirited fifty-something who has been married six times; her good friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello) a dog breeder who has steered clear of marriage so far; Jocelyn’s childhood friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) whose husband of 23 years (Jimmy Smits) has just left her for another woman; Sylvia’s twenty-something daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) a proud lesbian who nevertheless falls too hard and too often for the wrong women; Prudie (Emily Blunt) an uptight high school French teacher Bernadette takes under her wing; and finally sci-fi geek Grigg (Hugh Dancy) the only male in the group brought in by Jocelyn as a potential suitor for the jilted Sylvia. He acquiesces even though he really has a thing for Jocelyn. But Jane Austen is the one who rules supreme in these monthly get-togethers and the book-club members soon find parallels between the author’s work and their own lives. The performances in Jane Austen are definitely one of the keys to the film’s allure. Maria Bello (A History of Violence) is particularly good as Jocelyn a woman who won’t open herself up to a meaningful relationship preferring to lavish affection on her canine best friends. Of course when Jocelyn finally realizes how idiotic she’s been passing up a tasty morsel like Grigg Bello turns it on like the pro she is. For his part Dancy (Evening) shares some mean chemistry with Bello and plays the Jane Austen novice with style; as his eyes are opened to Austen’s writing so are the audience’s. Blunt--the Brit who made such a stunning American film debut in The Devil Wears Prada--plays Prudie right on the edge evident in Blunt’s perpetually teary-eyed and quivering-voiced performance. She’s the snooty literary snob of the group but her personal life is in shambles--married to a kind man (Marc Blucas) who doesn’t really understand her which prompts Prudie to consider having a fling with a charismatic high school senior (Kevin Zegers). Natch. As the more veteran members of the cast Baker Brenneman and Smits are all a little more predictable in their roles but well-fitted for the story nonetheless. Jane Austen is one of those rare cases in which the movie is as good—if not maybe better—than the book. That’s a true testament to writer/director Swicord (who also wrote the Memoirs of a Geisha adaptation). While the book occasionally plods the movie mostly zings right along. Swicord cuts through Fowler’s long expository passages on the characters’ pasts and succinctly recaps each one's individual backstory without ever showing it. Instead Swicord focuses her attention on the intertwining relationships as they relate to Jane Austen’s nine novels. The only drawback could be that Jane Austen tends to be sappy—but it is its exuberance for Jane Austen and her work that gives the film its pulse. True this movie is for women by women but as far as a lesson on the late 18th century novelist Jane Austen is far more entertaining than taking an English college course on Victorian writers. Let’s just say if the movie doesn’t get you to read a Jane Austen novel nothing will.