Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan. Starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.
"A young girl"¦ sees something from her bedroom window that she doesn't understand, but that she thinks she does." So 18-year-old Briony Tallis describes the story she's writing that about an incident that happened five years earlier, an incident that forever changed the lives of Briony's sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), Cecilia's lover (James McAvoy), and Briony herself.
The tap-tap-tapping of a typewriter is woven into the movie's soundtrack and punctuates the action, first as 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is just finishing her first play. "It's about how love is all very well but one must be sensible," she tells her visiting cousins. Briony clearly views herself as sensible and mature. Her naiveté, however, is amply demonstrated by her sexless drop-waist dress and grave, childlike face, and by her reaction to the growing sexual tension between her glamorous older sister Cecilia and Robbie, the housekeeper's son who has been educated at the expense of the Tallis family. Through Briony's eyes, the encounters she witnesses between Cecilia and Robbie take on a sinister quality that alarms her. Convinced that Robbie (on whom Briony herself has a young girl's crush) is a sex fiend, the story she tells naming Robbie as her cousin's rapist seems to her not a lie at all, but the inevitable truth as she sees it.
The first part of the film takes place at the lovely country estate of the Tallis family, on the hot summer's day whose events will result in devastating consequences. The rest of the story moves back and forth in time, sweeping through the years of World War II, following Cecilia, who has been estranged from her family since Robbie's arrest and who is now a nurse; Robbie, who was released from prison on the condition that he become a solider; and Briony, who has also gone into nurse's training, giving up her place at Cambridge to do so. While Cecilia and Robbie struggle in their separate roles in the war, Briony spends her life trying to atone for the terrible pain she now realizes she has caused.
The film is beautifully photographed, though some shots seem overly self-conscious: Cecilia framed dead center in an archway as Robbie is taken away to prison, Robbie silhouetted against a close-up of lovers on a movie screen. Others, though they call attention to their camera work, are still effective: the sea of evacuating soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk, the Ferris wheel and other reminders that the spot had once been a beach resort contrasting with the grim desperation of the soldiers.
One complaint about the otherwise effective soundtrack: can we please call a moratorium on the use of Debussy's tinkly Clair de Lune, the most overused piece of music in movies since Pachelbel's Canon? No complaints about the acting. Though I've never been a huge fan of Keira Knightley, as the brown-haired, heavily-browed Cecilia, who unsuccessfully hides behind class distinctions to avoid her feelings for Robbie, she is just right. James McAvoy's boyish appeal works perfectly for Robbie, the working class hero whose aspirations are dashed by Briony's false accusation. The real gem here is Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony, the precocious and priggish girl with those big, serious eyes. Romola Garai as the 18-year-old Briony picks up the role with the same solemn face and simple, straight hairstyle, but without, as is appropriate, the younger Briony's smug self-certainty. Vanessa Redgrave, in the movie's coda, is moving as Briony (now a well-known novelist) at the end of her life, though I did wonder if part of Briony's self-imposed penance was never changing her hairstyle. But don't let me end on that note: I liked this movie a lot, and if the latter part of the film is not quite as gripping as the earlier scenes at the Tallis estate, I still shed a few tears at the end.
This is the type of large-scale period love story that Oscar loves. Still, though it's a good movie, it's not a great one. I don't see this one winning Best Picture. Never mind: unless you absolutely hate large-scale period love stories, go see it anyway.