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    One Mistake

    How do you ask for forgiveness for a mistake made when you were 13 years old that ended in tragedy?

    This seems to be the central quandary at the heart of last week’s Staller Center film, “Atonement,” based on the Ian MacEwan novel of the same name.

    Rising stars Keira Knightley (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and James MacAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland”) play lovers torn apart by a false accusation in pre-WWII England, though their love has barely had more than an instant to flower.

    She is the daughter of a wealthy English family; he is the son of the steward, little better than a servant in the eyes of Cecilia Tallis (Knightley), despite having gone to Oxford. Though sexual tension exists between Cecilia and Robbie (MacAvoy), they never act on it until a hot summer’s day and a broken piece of porcelain bring things to a head.

    However, things go awry when Robbie gives Briony, Cecilia’s sister, an apology letter than he has mixed up unknowingly with a sexually graphic love letter to give to Cecilia. Briony, who is 13 and in love with Robbie herself, despite being woefully innocent in the practices of love, desire and courtship, runs home and reads the letter herself, interpreting it as a manifestation of Robbie’s evident sexual deviance.

    That same night, Robbie and Cecilia consummate their desire while their cousin Lola goes missing. When it turns out she has been sexually molested, Briony accuses Robbie of the crime, believing, or wanting to believe, that it was him she saw running away from Lola that night.

    Briony’s misconceptions, confusions, feelings of jealousy, and ultimately, her accusation as the only eyewitness other than Lola, who refuses to speak on the subject, condemn Robbie to prison and later to fighting in the war. A rift forms between Cecilia and her family, and she goes to London to be a nurse. Eventually, Briony, who with age realizes the mistakes she made and starts writing a book about it, follows her.

    The senses of loss, loneliness, and desires unconsumed are overwhelming in the film, and the chemistry between Knightley and MacAvoy is palpable. It is easy to see why “Atonement” was nominated for so many Academy Awards, and difficult to understand why it only got one: for best score.

    Undoubtedly, its grand themes of war, loss and love might seem tired and overwrought to some, but in cinematography alone, the film excels. As we watch Robbie dying on the coast of France, hallucinating a meeting with his mother (Brenda Blethyn), we cannot help but feel that the surreal, nightmarish quality of war is accurately portrayed while we hope against hope that Robbie makes it back into the arms of Cecilia.

    The end of the film is tragic, and we find that Briony, whose story we have been following more closely than that of Cecilia, is unable to ultimately atone for what she has done. The opportunity is lost to her, and the only thing left to her is atonement in fiction and poetic license.

    At times dreamlike, and at times realistic in the vein of late 19th century realism, “Atonement” grapples with 1930s British class structures, the personal tragedies of war, and one woman’s inability to come to terms with the pain she has caused others due to her own feelings of jealousy. Perhaps there are other, better war films, or other, better love stories. However, “Atonement” is powerful in its own ways. Despite its tendency towards cinematic lushness, it is ultimately a story that explores the complicated ripple effects of a mistake, a mistake that could be rectified but isn’t.

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