- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on www.commonsensemedia.org.

‘Atonement’

Rating: R

Common Sense Media: Pause. For ages 15 and older.

***** (out of five stars)

Running time: 123 minutes

Common Sense review: “Atonement,” the best-selling novel by English author Ian McEwan, isn’t an easy book to translate to the big screen. The book is about the power of words, the blurry line between fantasy and truth, and the consequences of not understanding the meaning of words or sexual attraction. But director Joe Wright, who made 2006’s Oscar-nominated “Pride & Prejudice,” does an admirable job of creating a faithful adaptation that resonates with viewers, whether they’re familiar with the book or not.

James McAvoy, who wowed critics with his performance in “The Last King of Scotland,” turns up the intensity as Robbie Turner, the son of a rich English family’s housekeeper who was sent to Cambridge on the Tallis family’s benevolent dime. He secretly admires the eldest Tallis daughter, Cecilia (the lovely Keira Knightley). One sunny day at the family’s country estate, “Cee” disrobes and plunges into the garden’s fountain to retrieve a shard of a valuable vase that Robbie accidentally broke. He looks away, but can’t help but register the sight of the gorgeous young woman wearing nothing but a wet slip.

What Cee and Robbie don’t realize is that their fairly innocent moment in the garden has been completely misconstrued by Cee’s 13-year-old sister Briony (played as a girl with pitch-perfect confidence by Irish newcomer Saoirse Ronan). A fabulist who lives in her own girlish world of plays and poems, Briony harbors a crush on Robbie, which leads her to later misinterpret a steamy moment between Cee and Robbie as an attack. Fueled by a shocking draft of a love letter that Robbie unintentionally sends to Cee (the one he meant for her to read stays in his room), Briony proceeds to accuse Robbie of an unrelated sexual crime.

Suddenly the film, like the book, skips ahead five years, as Robbie — now an ex-con soldier — and two other men walk through war-torn France to the pivotal evacuation at Dunkirk. (Unlike readers of the novel, moviegoers are spared the description of the Tallis family’s betrayal of Robbie, who is easily and wrongfully convicted in an England where an upper-class teenager’s word means more than that of a Cambridge graduate whose mother cleans house.) Mr. Wright stages an elaborate, five-minute-plus uninterrupted shot of the surreal scene, where Robbie is just one of tens of thousands of men waiting to get back to England — with just his letters from Cee and the memory of their stolen embraces to give him comfort.

Miss Knightley and Mr. McAvoy have enough chemistry to make their scenes sizzle, and Mr. McAvoy in particular breaks out as an actor destined for leading man status. His boyish looks allow him to be forceful and vulnerable at the same time, and he’s surprisingly attractive — but not in an overwhelming Brad Pitt way that distracts from his performance. Mr. Wright and Miss Knightley (who also starred in his “Pride & Prejudice”) also seem to understand each other, and if a third film results from the pairing, it will be quite clear that he’s found his professional muse.

As in the book, as the movie nears its end, viewers meet an elderly Briony, convincingly played by Vanessa Redgrave, who still wears the same hairstyle and figureless dresses sported by the 13-year-old version of Briony. She finally has gotten a chance to fully make up for her adolescent mistakes. And the audience, like Mr. McEwan’s readers, learns that sometimes atonement takes an entire lifetime.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that this adaptation of Mr. McEwan’s best-selling novel deals with themes — including adolescent immaturity, class differences, lying and passion — that are too complex for all but the most mature teens to really be able to grasp and put in context. There are a couple of sexual situations, and the extended scene of the evacuation from Dunkirk is bloody and disturbing.

Families can talk about the impact of Briony’s lie. What misconceptions led her to think she saw Robbie committing a crime? What does the story convey about the power of words and the flexibility of truth? Older teens who are precocious readers may want to read the novel and discuss whether the film is an accurate, adequate adaptation.

Sexual content: Cecilia and Robbie share a few passionate kisses and an intimate lovemaking scene, but there’s no nudity — just quick shots of sleeves slipping off shoulders and tuxedo pants opening, etc.

Language alert: Strong language, including one extreme vulgarity repeatedly shown typewritten.

Violence alert: The war-related scenes in France and at Dunkirk are disturbing: soldiers shooting their horses, a field full of dead schoolgirls, amputees, bloody soldiers, etc. There’s a graphic scene of a patient’s head injury at a London hospital, as well as many bloody men. Another scene shows dying and dead men, as well as a group of Londoners about to perish.

Social behavior alert: A young adolescent’s distortion of the truth leads to devastating, irreversible results. A grown woman tries to “atone” for her past wrongdoing.

Alcohol/tobacco/drug alert: Like any upper-crust English family, the Tallises drink cocktails, wine and champagne at a dinner party. During the Dunkirk scene, soldiers are shown drinking in a makeshift pub, while one character tries in vain to get a drink. Men and women smoke cigarettes, as was the style in the 1930s and ‘40s.

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