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ATONEMENT: KNIGHTLEY, McAVOY, REDGRAVE, RONAN ENCHANT IN OSCAR-WORTHY ADAPTATION

By Melynda Nuss

SAN FRANCISCO, 1 FEBRUARY 2008 — It is difficult to reproduce the supersaturated world of childhood, with its dollhouse-castles and enchanted forests, water nymphs in the glens and ogres under bridges. It is not exactly a time of innocence but a time of adult knowledge imperfectly understood; those shadows of water nymphs and wicked queens will all take their proper shapes eventually. Meanwhile the intelligent child is left to guess —  to make up stories out of picture books and fragments of adult conversation overheard - knowing, perhaps, that the storybooks might hold the deepest truth of all.


Saoirse Ronan in Atonement
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Atonement is pitch-perfect in describing that child world, less literal than Harry Potter or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; less fantastic than The Wizard of Oz. The adult viewer knows exactly what is going on behind those fragments of broken china —  and make no mistake about it, this is an adult movie. But at the same time, we see those events re-enchanted through the eyes of a child, floating in a magic underwater world of blue-tint and seaweed. Even when the story leaves the world of childhood, the characters retain that tinge of enchantment. A soldier wanders through a World War I reminiscent of Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch; even the sterile, blood-swabbed ward of a hospital takes on the quality of a child's dream.


James McAvoy in Atonement
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

It seems that I do a lot of writing about movies taken from books - believe me, I don't choose them for that reason. But this movie does do a lot to put Ian McEwan's dense, redolent prose into visual form. McEwan's characters are notoriously internal; his most recent book, Saturday, follows the twists and turns in the mind of a neurosurgeon as he wanders through London on a Saturday, thinking about life, family and the strange ways of the brain. It takes an actor's actor to show us an interior monologue without a lot voiceover or background scenes, but James McAvoy and Keira Knightly are up to the task. Their mobile faces give us the frustration of McEwan's highly interior characters without having to resort to explanation. And it goes without saying that Vanessa Redgrave, who does get the luxury of explaining, gives her explanation with so with such wisdom and kindness that actors might long to grow old just to imitate her.


James McAvoy and Keira Knightley in Atonement
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

And in homage to McEwan's love of music, the sound in this film is brilliant. I have never heard a typewriter used as a musical instrument before, but I hope to hear it again; its efficient tick-tick-tick is good reason to take the old monsters out of the closet and oil up their keys. (Will we ever be nostalgic for the sound of a computer, I wonder?) The film is full of knocks and bumps, every one of them both musical and scary. And it's a movie that's not afraid to use silence (the original horror soundtrack) to good effect.


Vanessa Redgrave in Atonement
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

In short, the point of this movie is not in its moral - which, with apologies to McEwan, I found a bit cheesy. It's in the recreation of an experience —  an enchanted moment fraught with consequences and terror —  which shows that however little we might think we know ourselves, we actually know ourselves all too well.

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Assistant Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American. She last wrote on Charlie Wilson's War: Embarrassing Oscar Bait for Culturekiosque.com

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