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World War II Romance, Child's Misunderstanding, Play Key Roles in 'Atonement'


A season of literary adaptations continues at the movies with the screen version of a sweeping World War II romance by English author Ian McEwan. With seven Golden Globe nominations and numerous other critics awards, the film is likely to be a major Oscar contender. Alan Silverman has a look at Atonement.

On the hottest summer day of 1935, 13-year-old Briony gazes out of her window to see a couple at a fountain: her older sister Cecilia with Robbie, handsome son of the housekeeper of the sprawling English estate. Briony can not hear what they are saying, but she is transfixed. Then the scene replays, this time from the perspective of the couple at the fountain, arguing over an antique vase.

Briony is an imaginative aspiring writer; but in her naïve innocence, she can not understand the feelings that Cecilia and Robbie share ...even when she eavesdrops on their passionate embrace.

In the 13-year-old's eyes, Robbie is forcing himself on Cecilia. As events begin to collide, the misunderstanding leads to an accusation.

In that moment, three lives change forever; but it is the eve of World War II and by the time Briony realizes what she has done, it may be too late.

"This is a very emotional piece and there's a lot of tears in it ...a lot of tears for the audience to have as well; however, I think it engages your intellect as well," explains Scottish-born James McAvoy, who plays Robbie.

"He occupies a strange place in society - one that terrifies people. He is a working class man living beyond his means. He has ambitions to become a doctor and he probably will realize those ambitions. That terrifies those in his own class and those above his class. It is the beginning of the breakdown of the class structure in Britain ...also, the emancipation of women as well ...but not yet. (It is) 10 years too early."

"It is incredibly tragic. It made me sob and sob ...for many different reasons," adds Keira Knightley, who co-stars as Cecilia. She says there is tragedy in the war-torn relationship with Robbie; but also in the plight of her character's younger sister Briony.

"The mistakes that she makes are so understandable. They are so human. It is a child seeing sexual tension between two adults," Knightley explains. "Why would she understand that? She makes sense of it as best she can and she thinks that she's telling the truth. Then, the later bit, we all like to think that, having done a wrong, we would put it right. I think it takes an incredibly strong person to do that. So I think it is a book and film that makes you confront various questions about yourself and how you would behave."

Briony is played by three actresses. Irish teenager Saoirse Ronan establishes the character as a 13-year-old. Then Romola Garai plays her at 18.

"There has to be a real ambiguity about which way her life is going to go," Garai says. "It's a genuine crossroads at the point that I play it. So I think it's important for people to know that she is deeply struggling with this moral conundrum, but not necessarily know whether she is going to find the strength of character to truly absolve herself of this responsibility and find 'Atonement.'"

Finally, Briony at 70 is portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave.

"I felt a very great, close kinship with the novel because it covers my parents life when they were young terms of history," explains Redgrave. "It covers the war, which I experienced ...Dunkirk ...I mean all the men in my family were in the war and I have read their letters and things like that, so all of that time is in my bloodstream. I know this like it is my own life; but, of course, it wasn't my life. It is completely different people's lives."

Director Joe Wright, whose first film was the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, says his goal - again - was to be faithful to the spirit of the original.

"My challenge, really, was to try and find ways of expressing McEwan's spectacular book in cinematic form. That was exciting for me," he says.

Atonement is adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton. The cast also features Brenda Blethyn and Benedict Cumberbatch. The evocative musical score is by Italian-born composer Dario Marianelli.