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At the Movies: What Is This Thing Called Love?: Atonement ****

The distant life of a writer often means that the living, breathing world is nothing more than copy. Dreams begin and end with sentences. Life’s tragedies are merely good material. A bad childhood can be a good writer’s best weapon.

In Atonement, adapted by Christopher Hampton from a book by Ian McEwan and directed by Joe Wright, love is something unattainable by all because it was unattainable by Briony, the film’s main character. She is practically born writing and seems to want nothing to do with the follies of human beings. From an early age, her friends are the characters she writes, and writing will become her life.

The film’s story centers around a fiction, a lie rather, that grows to gross proportions and ends up sending an innocent young man Robbie (James McAvoy) to prison. The lie destroys his life, the life of his lover Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and, to a degree, Briony’s own.

Director Wright chooses certain repeating themes to tell his story. Water is a big one, partly because water itself is a sexual reference in more ways than one. Cecilia plunges into water a few times, one of which shows her nearly naked to Robbie. It is this moment that informs their relationship, Briony’s feelings, and what happens in the film from that point on.

As Cecilia and Robbie burn for each other, Briony turns it all inward. When she is offered the opportunity to thwart the lovers, she does not hesitate. And when she ruins their lives and goes on with hers, she has, in essence, stolen theirs and kept it for herself, for her imagination. Isn’t that what writers do to those around them, to those who care about them and trust them? Don’t they exploit what is offered up to them and, in effect, steal experiences?

Atonement is top to bottom a magnificent film. It is beautiful to look at, a feast for the senses and nerves, and nothing short of a great romantic epic. For a film that revolves around female lust it was necessary to find an object worthy of such powerful feeling, and James McAvoy is well suited for the task. The gorgeous McAvoy could make any woman bitter for life if he refused her advances. And Keira Knightley is wonderful as the other half of the epic, mythic lovers.

It takes three actresses at different ages to play the woman, and all three manage the task brilliantly. Saoirse Ronan plays Briony at 13 when she spies on her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) having an intimate moment with a young Robbie (James McAvoy). Briony doesn’t know what she’s seeing because of course she can’t know. She is a preteen, and thus, matters of the adult heart are a mystery.

Briony, it’s clear, has a strong interest in Robbie but we don’t really find out about this until later in the film. The writer plays around with structure from the first part of the film onward as a way of setting the viewer up for the ending. This is a film about a writer who makes up stories. Truth, it seems, might be a matter of interpretation.

Romola Garai plays Briony as a young woman coming to terms with what she has done (basically accusing Robbie of having raped a young woman, which sent him off to jail). She tries to make amends with those she’s hurt, but Cecilia and Robbie won’t speak to her.

Finally, we meet up with Vanessa Redgrave playing Briony as an old woman. All three women have the same sadness, the same serious look in their eyes, and the same sense of rigid aloneness as if they were trapped behind glass and given the chance to gaze at life but never to touch it or be touched by it.

Atonement is an oddly stirring, unforgettable examination of one writer’s use and abuse of her beloved subjects.

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