In preparation for the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees on Tuesday, PJ and I saw Atonement today. As with 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, director Joe Wright has crafted a beautiful adaptation of a much loved novel. This time, Keira Knightley, is joined by James McAvoy, Brenda Blethyn, and Vanessa Redgrave. Here’s the trailer:

McAvoy plays Robbie Turner, the son of the housekeeper to the wealthy Tallis family. Having won a scholarship to school, Turner then went to Cambridge at the Tallises’s expense. While this beneficence is admirable, the family’s true colors come out when Robbie is accused of a terrible crime by Briony, the youngest Tallis daughter.

Briony is played by Saoirse Ronan, who does any amazing job as the precocious girl who mistakenly thinks she understands the adult relationships around her. The first act follows Briony’s rather fractured witnessing of three separate events, which leads her to conclude that Robbie is a “sex maniac,” as she tells another character. This conclusion leads to her accusation against him. Five years later, she has a completely different reading of these puzzle pieces, one that forces her to confront her previous actions and at least attempt to atone for them.

Atonement is a sweeping epic romance in the style of such films as The English Patient, Out of Africa, and Titanic. It’s certainly well crafted. It definitely deserves nominations for cinematography, costumes, and score. I especially like the way the film uses the motif of a typewriter in the music (though I also thought the music was a bit much in places.)

McAvoy is excellent as always. He has a knack for playing likable guys, but he’s also come into his own as a leading man. His character has the largest story arc, and McAvoy convincingly transforms Robbie from likable guy with the world on a string to devastatingly jaded soldier with bleak prospects. Knightley is also good in a relatively smaller role.

For me, the film is at least partly about the English class system and the ease with which the upper class consumed men from the lower class in order to perpetuate itself. There’s a small but pivotal scene in which we see one of the peripheral characters meeting the queen. This brief glimpse at this character’s bright future contains a sizable critique of the class system and the war — indeed, every war — both of which need these men to sustain themselves. We also glimpse the ways in which the British government uses propaganda to give hope to its people even when their army is retreating from France and Hitler’s forces. We see the loss of life, but words of patriotic sacrifice is all the citizens of London are given. Atonement is very much an anti-war film — a beautifully crafted one — but an anti-war film nevertheless.

On the whole, this is a very good film. My biggest complaint, however, was that I didn’t ultimately care about the characters caught up in this web of lies and destruction. The love story didn’t spark my emotions (though the scenes showing the devastation of war certainly did), and the big revelation scene at the end seemed kind of silly. I liked the film, but I didn’t love it. If it doesn’t get a best picture nod on Tuesday I think it will suggest that the academy members had the same response.

Now I just need to see There Will Be Blood and I’ll be just about ready for the big Oscar categories!

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