The first half of Atonement is pretty and inclined to warm the cockles of anyone who likes World War II romances or English countryhouse movies. It's a rare filmmaker who gets golden summers wrong. So we have amidst a lounging crowd of siblings, cousins and guests in a mansion, Briony Tallis, highly emotional thirteen-year old who sees what she thinks is her beautiful older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is being attacked by their neighbour Robbie (James McAvoy). He was after all monstrous enough to use her as messenger to deliver an obscene letter to Cecilia.

Of course then things go very wrong. Briony's precocious cousin Lola (yes,yes we get the Lolita bit but did Benedict Cumberbatch have to be such a silly villain?) is found raped and unable to say who did it to her. Briony already inclined to think very badly of her erstwhile childhood hero tells the police that she saw Robbie doing it. Young Robbie may have gone to Cambridge and be Cecilia's brand new lover but he is still the housekeeper's son. No one has any reason to doubt Briony. Cecilia's acid testimony having been discounted Robbie goes to jail and then to war as a common soldier.

Things also go very wrong for the movie. From the point that Robbie goes to jail the movie become patchy and frequently irritating. The young Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a child without much of a sense of humour. But much of that happens in the first half unfairly encourages you to laugh at her. Even the sex-in-the-library scene (an idea I am much in favour of) is less inclined to heat than mockery. The grown-up Briony (Romola Garai) seems distressingly moronic and has perhaps even a hint of sex-starved voyeur. Since the movie sets her up this way, it makes it difficult for us to empathise with what she supposedly is --- a young girl suffering for a single error of judgement. The hospital scenes with marching nurses lean towards absurdity. Just as one warms to Briony's courageous handling of a delirious soldier along comes Matron, looking like Morticia Adams.

Then there are the war-in-France scenes. James McAvoy is perhaps the only redeeming factor in this part which is unappealing to even WW2 suckers like me. The rule that the hero of a war movie must have a wise-cracking, silly companion is faithfully maintained. At the Jaipur Lit Fest, Christopher Hampton said that the budget for the scenes in France shrank considerably until they decided to just have the one long beach scene with a thousand extras. This scene packed with the cruel,grimy and the picturesque becomes short-hand for all the pointlessness of war. But by then one is already fed up. So even Briony 3 (Vanessa Redgrave) making her much-discussed atonement failed to interest. Atonement is a rather odd combination of short-shrift and over-kill.

Cecilia Tallis' green dress is the high point of the first half of Atonement. You may be a little surprised at how much attention you pay to the green dress but perhaps not. Keira Knightley is one of the most beautiful faces in Hollywood and as much as she is impaired by her marionette-like carriage, in repose, she is dazzling. What will surprise you is how much attention you pay to costumes as Atonement progresses. The nurses' pinafores, the grown-up Briony Tallis's Joan-of-Arc like clothes at Lola's wedding and at her sister's flat, the clothes of the pile of dead orphans found in a woods in France. While watching Atonement, you occasionally feel like you ought to feel a little more but are constantly distracted -- as if attending the funeral of an relative you don't remember at all.

PS No green dress has ever been contemplated so much since Scarlett O'Hara wanted an apple-green, watered-silk ball dress. If you are truly obsessed with the green dress then here is all the dope.


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