“MR. HOLMES” (2015) Review

 

“MR. HOLMES” (2015) Review

Arthur Conan Doyle created a force of nature when he set out to write a series of mystery novels featuring the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. His novels have not only provided a series of movie and television adaptations for the past century, but also the Holmes character has led to a great number of movies, novels and television series that featured original stories not written by Doyle. Among them is Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind”.

About a decade later, “MR. HOLMES”, a film adaptation of Cullin’s novel finally hit the movie screens. Directed by Bill Condon, the movie told the story of a 93 year-old Sherlock Holmes, who has returned to his Sussex farm, following a trip to Hiroshima, Japan in 1947. The aging retired detective had taken the trip abroad to acquire a prickly ash plant and use its jelly to help him improve his failing memory. Apparently, Holmes has been unhappy with his ex-partner Dr. John Watson’s account of his last case, which occurred over 30 years earlier, and hoped to write his own account. Holmes recruits the help of Roger Munro, the young son of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, to help him regain his memories and care for the bees inside the farmhouse’s apiary. Over time, Holmes and Roger develop a strong friendship. And Holmes’ memories of his last case prove to be different than he had expected.

When I had first decided to see “MR. HOLMES” in the movie theaters, I did not expect it would be a mystery involving crime. I felt certain that it would more or less be a character study about the famous fictional detective. Not only was I right, I was also surprised to learn that Holmes’ last case said a lot about a certain aspect of his personality and how much he had changed through his relationship with Roger Munro and his mother. The movie also focused on Holmes’ trip to Japan and the curious relationship he had developed with a Mr. Tamiki Umezaki, who helped him find the prickly ash plant. Holmes discovered that Mr. Umezaki had a reason, other than admiration for his past reputation as a detective, for helping him. The latter believes that Holmes knows the real reason why his father had abandoned the Umezaki family many years ago. Only Holmes does not remember.

Ever since its release in theaters, “MR. HOLMES” has been showered with acclaim from film critics, aside from a few who were not completely impressed. When I first saw the trailer for “MR. HOLMES”, a part of me immediately suspected that the movie would feature a mystery. But I also suspected that the mystery would have nothing to do with a crime. I was proved right when I finally saw the film. In the end, “MR. HOLMES” proved to be at its core, a character study of the fictional detective. But the movie is also a study of a man struggling with aging and the slow loss of his memories and faculties. Due to Holmes’ failing memory, the details surrounding his last case and the disappearance of Mr. Umezaki’s father served as the story’s two mysteries.

A character study of Sherlock Holmes. The last time I saw a similar narrative unfold occurred in the 1976 movie, “THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION” in which the detective struggled with cocaine and morphine, along with an unpleasant childhood memory. But the 1976 movie also featured a mysterious death and kidnapping. No crimes were featured in“MR. HOLMES”. The interesting aspect about “MR. HOLMES” is that the detective’s last case revealed an aspect about his personality that he had never acknowledge or recognized in the past. A personal shortcoming that led to the final failure of his last case. And this discovery . . . this failure led him to retire as a private detective in disgust. And yet, thirty years later, Holmes finds himself struggling to face that aspect of his personality again, due to his relationship with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her young son, Roger.

Overall, “MR. HOLMES” was an interesting and well-paced experience for me. I thought director Bill Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher did a first-rate job in exploring not only Holmes’ personality, but also the other major characters featured in this movie. I also have to give kudos to both men for being able to maintain the story’s main narrative and unveiling the mysteries of Holmes’ past, while flashing back and forth between the detective’s past and present. And they did this without the movie falling apart in the end.

I also have to give kudos to the movie’s production values. Production designer Martin Childs did an excellent job of re-creating both London in the 1910s, along with Sussex and Hiroshima in the mid-to-late 1940s. There was nothing earth shattering about his work, but I believe it served the movie’s purpose. His work was ably enhanced by Jonathan Houlding and James Wakefield’s art designs, and Charlotte Watts’ set decorations. In fact, the movie’s entire production values seemed to be in a state of understated elegance, including Keith Madden’s costume designs, which ably re-created the wardrobes of the two decades featured in the movie.

I felt rather disgusted and disappointed that Ian McKellen failed to get an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of the aging Sherlock Holmes. I was amazed at his ability to portray the same character in two different time periods, yet at the same time, reflect at how much that character had changed over the years. And remained the same. Another Oscar potential performance came from Laura Linney, who was outstanding as Holmes’ put upon housekeeper, Mrs. Munro. First of all, I thought she did a first-rate job of recapturing her character’s regional accent. And two, she did a superb job of conveying her character’s unease over the growing friendship between her son and Holmes. If Milo Parker can stay the course, he might prove to be an outstanding actor as an adult. He was certainly first-rate as the very charming and intelligent Roger Munro. He also managed to hold his own against the likes of both McKellen and Linney.

I have not seen Hattie Morahan in a movie or television production for quite a while and it was good to see her. More importantly, she was superb as the housewife Ann Kelmot, who was under investigation by Holmes in the past. The actress managed to effectively project an intelligent, yet melancholic air that nearly permeated the film. “MR. HOLMES” is probably the first dramatic project I have ever seen feature Hiroyuki Sanada. Well . . . perhaps the second. I have always been aware that he was a first-rate actor. But I feel that he may have surpassed himself in giving, I believe, the film’s most subtle performance. I was astounded by how delicately he shifted the Tamiki Umezaki character from an ardent admirer of Holmes’ who wanted to help the latter to the emotional and suspicion son, who demanded to know the whereabouts of his missing father. The movie also featured solid performances from Roger Allam, Patrick Kennedy, Frances de la Tour, John Sessions and a surprise cameo appearance of Nicholas Rowe (who portrayed the fictional detective in the 1985 movie, “YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES”).

As much as I enjoyed “MR. HOLMES”, I believe that it suffered from one major flaw. Some critics had complained about Holmes’ visit to Japan and more specifically, his visit to the Hiroshima bomb site. I did not have a problem with Holmes and Mr. Umezaki’s visit to the famous site. Personally, I found it rather interesting. On the other hand, I had a problem with the subplot regarding the mystery of Tamiki Umezaki’s father. I will not spoil the ending of this particular story arc. But needless to say, I not only found it disappointing, but downright implausible. Was this how Mitch Cullin ended the Umezaki story arc? If so, I wish Hatcher and Condon had changed it. There was no law that they had to closely adapt Cullin’s novel.

Aside from the Tamiki Umezaki story arc, I found “MR. HOLMES” very satisfying, engrossing and very entertaining. Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher did a top-notch job in adapting Mitch Cullin’s novel. And they ably supported by the subtle artistry of the movie’s technical crew and the superb performances of a cast led by the always excellent Ian McKellen.

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

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“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

There have been a great deal of movies, plays and television productions about four of the five former Cambridge University students who became spies for the Soviet Union. One of the more recent productions turned out to be BBC’s four-part television miniseries called “CAMBRIDGE SPIES”

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” followed the lives of these four men between the years of 1934 and 1951, when two of them defected to the Soviet Union for good. The fifth man, John Caincross, merely served as a supporting character in this production. The more famous four include the following:

*Anthony Blunt
*Guy Burgess
*Harold “Kim” Philby
*Donald Maclean

The story begins somewhere in the early-to-mid 1930s with our four protagonists serving as instructors or students at Cambridge University. During their time at Cambridge, all four men openly express their radical views in various incidents that include defending a female Jewish student from harassment by elitist and pro-Fascist students like the one portrayed by actor Simon Woods, and supporting a temporary strike by the mess hall waiters. During this time, both Blunt and Burgess have already been recruited by the Soviet Union’s KGB. And the two set out to recruit the other two – Philby and Maclean. By the end of the 1930s, the quartet have ceased expressing their radical views out in the open and go out of their ways to show their support of both the British establishment and any support of the Fascist regimes in other parts of Europe. When World War II breaks out, all four have become fully employed with either MI-5 or MI-6 and full time moles for the KBG.

When “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” first hit the television sets in Britain, there were a good deal of negative reaction – mainly from the right – toward a production that portrayed the Cambridge Five (or Four) in a sympathetic light. Others also pointed out that the miniseries failed to give a completely accurate of the four men’s lives. I had no problem with the miniseries’ sympathetic portrayal of the four men. After all, this is their story. Since the story is told from their point of view, it would not make sense to portray them as one-dimensional villains. And despite the sympathetic portrayal, the personal flaws of all four are revealed in the story. The criticisms of historical inaccuracy are correct. Why is that a surprise? Since when has historical fiction of any kind – a movie, television production, play, novel or even a painting – has been historically accurate. In fact, historical accuracy is pretty rare in fiction. As I have pointed out in numerous past articles, the story always comes first – even if historical facts get in the way.

There are some aspects of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” I found a bit off putting. I wish the story had ended with “Kim” Philby’s defection in 1963, instead of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess’ defection in 1951. I feel that an ending in the early 1960s could have given the production more of a final note. Also during 1963, Burgess died from complication of alcoholism. And less than a year later, Blunt finally confessed to British authorities of being a KGB mole. Another aspect of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” that struck me as unpleasant was the anti-American sentiment that seemed to taint the production. I am aware that many left-wing Europeans like the main characters harbored a deep dislike of Americans. In fact, this sentiment has remained firmly intact even to this day. But I noticed that the script seemed to be filled with ugly generalizations about Americans that are rarely, if never, defended by American characters such as Melinda Marling Maclean and James Jesus Angleton. There is one scene between Maclean and his future wife Melinda in which the former explained why he disliked Americans to the latter:

Donald: I hate America.
Melinda: Are you gonna tell me why?
Donald: For the way you treat workers, the way you treat black people, the way you appropriate, mispronounce and generally mutilate perfectly good English words. Cigarette?

I am not claiming that Maclean’s criticisms of America – back then and today – were off. My problem is that he had also described what was wrong with Britain then and now – including its citizens’ mispronunciation and mutilation of good English words. And the script never allowed Melinda to point this out. Or perhaps this was screenwriter Peter Moffat’s way of stating that even those with liberal or radical views can be diehard bigots toward a certain group. I also learned that Moffat created certain scenes to make his protagonists look even more sympathetic. The worst, in my opinion, was the sequence that featured Kim Philby’s decision on whether or not to kill the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on the KGB’s orders. I found this scene completely unnecessary and rather amateurish, if I must be brutally frank.

However, the virtues in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” outweighed the flaws. Moffat, along with director Tim Fywell and the movie’s cast and crew did a stupendous job in re-creating Britain, parts of Europe and the United States during the twenty-year period between the early 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s. I was especially impressed with the miniseries’ production in Episode Two that covered the four protagonists’ incursion into Britain’s diplomatic and intelligent services during the late 1930s. Production designer Mike Gunn, along with cinematographer David Higgs re-created Great Britain during this period with great detail. Charlotte Walter had the difficult task of providing the cast with costumes for a period that spans nearly twenty years. I cannot say that I found her costumes particularly exceptional, but I have to give her kudos for being accurate or nearly accurate with the period’s fashions.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with most of the production’s sympathetic portrayals of the four leads. After all, they are human. Portraying them as one-note villains because of their political beliefs and actions, strikes me as bad storytelling. I can honestly say that “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” is not the product of bad storytelling. I feel that it was an excellent production that led me to investigate further into the true lives of these men. Also, one has to remember that the four men – Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean – were human beings with their own set of virtue and flaws. Some of their flaws and beliefs led them to make an incredibly bad decision – namely spy on their country on behalf of another. Some accused the production of glamorizing four men who had betrayed their country. That is an accusation I cannot agree. All four men came from privileged backgrounds. It is only natural that the miniseries would express the glamour of their origins.

Mind you, the series could have revealed more of the suffering that Britain’s working-class experienced that led the four men into becoming radicals. But what “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” truly excelled was the emotional consequences that they experienced for betraying their country. The miniseries was packed with scenes that included Philby’s aborted romance with Litzi Friedmann and his growing cold-blooded actions against anyone who was a threat to his identity; Burgess’ increasing inability to repress his distaste against the British establishment, their American allies and his alcoholism; and Maclean’s insecurities and struggling marriage with American Melinda Marling. Of the four, Blunt seemed to be the only one holding up under the pressures of being a Soviet mole . . . except when dealing with Burgess’ embarrassing outbursts and Maclean’s insecurities. No wonder he was happy for Philby to handle the two when he finally resigned from MI-5 to work as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures on behalf of the Royal Family. One could complain about the miniseries’ historical inaccuracy. But I can never agree that their careers as moles for the KBG were glamorized.

The miniseries featured some solid performances from the likes of James Fox as British Ambassador Lord Halifax, Anthony Andrews as King George VI, Patrick Kennedy as Julian Bell, Benedict Cumberbatch as a young British journalist in Spain, Lisa Dillon as Litzi Friedmann and Simon Woods as the bigoted Cambridge student Charlie Givens. I have mixed feelings about John Light’s performance as CIA agent James Angleton. I thought he did a good job in capturing Angleton’s intensity and intelligence. However, his Angleton still came off as the typical cliched American male found in most British productions – gauche and loud. There were two supporting performances that really impressed me. One came from Imelda Staunton, who gave a witty performance as Blunt’s distant cousin Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). The other supporting performance that impressed me was Anna-Louise Plowman, who superbly portrayed Donald Maclean’s witty and passionate American wife Melinda Marling.

However, our four leads did the real work in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” and carried the miniseries beautifully. Toby Stephens did an excellent job in conveying Kim Philby’s emotional journey from the womanizing, yet naive university radical who slowly becomes a cold-blooded, yet weary Cold War spy. Samuel West gave a sophisticated, yet tough performance as the cool-headed Anthony Blunt. Tom Hollander had garnered most of the praise for his vibrant performance as the emotional and unreliable Guy Burgess. However, there were times I found his performance a little too showy for my tastes. Personally, I feel that the most interesting performance came from Rupert Penry-Jones as the youngest of the four moles, Donald Maclean. Penry-Jones did such a superb job in portraying Maclean’s insecure and emotional nature, there were times I wondered how the man managed to be such a successful mole for over a decade.

Yes, “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” has its flaws. Even some of the best movie and television productions have flaws. And after viewing the miniseries, I cannot agree with this view that the actions of the four traitors – Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean – were glamorized. But it is a first-rate production with a detailed glimpse of European politics and diplomacy from the 1930s to 1951. Thanks to a well-written script by Peter Moffat; an excellent cast led by Toby Stephens, Samuel West, Tom Hollander and Rupert Penry-Jones; and first-rate direction by Tim Fywell; “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” proved to be one of the best dramas about the Cambridge KGB moles I have seen on the big or small screens.

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: On Stranger Tides” (2011) Review

 

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES” (2011) Review

When the Disney Studios and producer Jerry Bruckheimer had first released news of their intention to make sequels to their 2003 hit movie, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: Curse of the Black Pearl”, I reacted to the news with a greatdeal of wariness. In fact, I was against the idea. But after seeing 2006’s “Dead Man’s Chest” and 2007’s “At World’s End”, my opinion had changed. I ended up enjoying the two movies just as much as I had enjoyed “Curse of the Black Pearl” . . . especially the second film. 

About two years after “At World’s End” hit the theaters, the Disney people and Bruckheimer had released news of their intention to make a fourth film. Again, I expressed wariness at the idea. I thought the three movies released between 2003and 2007 made a neat little trilogy. There was no need for a fourth movie. But Disney and Bruckheimer went ahead with their plans and a fourth movie was recently released. But unlike “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”, I found it difficult to enjoy “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: On Stranger Tides”.

I cannot say that I disliked the film. There were aspects of it that I genuinely enjoyed. Both Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were in top form as Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Hector Barbossa. But I noticed something odd about their characters in this movie. For once, Jack did not have a particular goal to attain in this film. In “Curse of the Black Pearl”, he was after the Black Pearl. He was after the chest that contained Davy Jones’ heart in “Dead Man’s Chest” to be used to avoid a debt that he owned. And in “At World’s End”, he was still after Jones’ heart in order to gain the opportunity to become master of the Flying Dutchman and immortality. In this fourth movie, Jack seemed to have become swept up in Blackbeard and the British Crown’s agendas. And Barbossa seemed out of place as a privateer for His Majesty King George II and the Royal Navy. There was a scene that featured him eating slices of fruit arranged on a plate. He seemed to be doing his best to project the image of an officer and a gentleman . . . only he looked rather odd. However, both actors gave top notch performances and I could find nothing to complain about.

I could also say the same about the performances of Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane and Stephen Graham as Angelica, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and a sailor named Scrum, respectively. All three were perfectly cast in their respective roles. Cruz did an excellent job in portraying the complex Angelica, who happened to be the daughter of Blackbeard. Although it is obvious that she is attracted to Jack – a former lover, she seemed to have this . . . need for her father’s love that made her into some kind of twisted Daddy’s girl wannabe. Unfortunately, McShane’s Blackbeard seemed like poor father material. There were times when he conveyed the image of a concerned and loving father. And yet, he proved to be nothing more than an emotional vampire who would easily kill his daughter if she got in the way of his goal – the Fountain of Youth. And I must admit that not only did McShane made a witty and terrifying Blackbeard, he handled his character’s twisted relationship with Angelica beautifully. Graham’s Scrum almost struck me as a younger version of Jack’s old friend, Joshamee Gibbs. And considering that the latter’s appearance in this film seemed somewhat limited, it seemed just as well that Graham received more screen time.

There were other aspects of “On Stranger Tides” that I enjoyed. Or should I say, scenes? The mermaids’ attacks upon Blackbeard’s men and upon the H.M.S. Providence were among the most terrifying scenes I have seen in the franchise since the Kracken’s attacks in “Dead Man’s Chest”. I also enjoyed the scene that featured Jack’s mutinous meeting with members of Blackbeard’s crew. Personally, I found it very funny and it brought back memories of former characters such as Pintel, Ragetti, Marty and Cotton. Jack’s meeting with King George II proved to be somewhat entertaining. And it led to an equally entertaining chase sequence through the streets of mid-18th century London. But my favorite scene featured Jack marooning Angelica on a deserted island, following the death of Blackbeard. The humor not only permeated strongly in their verbal exchange, but also in director Rob Marshall’s visual style. And I must admit that I also enjoyed the photography featured in the London scenes and the “island” where the Fountain of Youth was located. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski did justice to the lush Hawaii jungle that served as one of the movie’s settings.

So, if I had so much to enjoy about “On Stranger Tides”, why did it fail to resonate within me in the end? What went wrong? At least for me? My main problem with the movie is that I felt it tried to repeat many aspects of the first film,“Curse of the Black Pearl”. This is odd, considering that “On Stranger Tides” was allegedly inspired by Tim Powers’ 1987 novel, “On Stranger Tides”. The fourth film did not come off as a remake or anything of such. But there were too many aspects of the first film that seemed to be repeated in “On Stranger Tides”. One, Jack’s reunion with Angelica in a London tavern almost seemed like a remake of his first meeting with Will Turner in “Curse of the Black Pearl”. Scrum almost seemed like a remake of Joshamee Gibbs. This is not surprising, since he had more scenes with Jack that Gibbs and the latter (along with actor Kevin McNally) seemed wasted in the movie. Two of Blackbeard’s crew turned out to be zombies (if you can call them that). And they seemed like remakes (physical and otherwise) of Barbossa’s first mate from the first film, Bo’sun. More importantly, the romance between missionary Philip Swift and the mermaid Syrena almost seemed like a remake of the Will Turner/Elizabeth Swann romance . . . but without the character developments. If I must be honest, Philip and Syrena’s romance nearly put me to sleep on several occasions. I feel sorry for actors Sam Claflin and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey. They seemed like two decent actors forced to work with a pair of boring and undeveloped characters.

There were other problems I had with “On Stranger Tides”. The movie saw the return of Royal Navy officers Theodore Groves (from the first and third film) and Gillette (from the first film). What on earth did Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot did to their roles? Both characters almost seemed lobotomized. Well, Gillette did. Groves seemed to have lost his sense of humor. I recalled that he was a big fan boy of Jack in the first and third films. Yet, when he finally met Jack . . . nothing happened. He was too busy being a rather boring and stiff character. What happened to Jack and Barbossa’s own quests for the Fountain of Youth, which was first introduced in “At World’s End”? After a few years of failure, the audience is led to believe that Jack simply lost interest. And Barbossa’s earlier encounter with Blackbeard and the latter’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, led to the loss of one leg and the Black Pearl. And how did Barbossa managed to survive the loss of his leg. Apparently, Barbossa had to cut off his leg to free from Blackbeard’s enchanted ship lines. So, how did he manage to keep himself from bleeding to death in the ocean? How did he manage to swim to safety with one leg?

And then we come to the mermaids. How did the mermaids manage to destroy Barbossa’s ship, the H.M.S. Providence? It was one thing to lure men from small boats or smash said boats. It was another to do the same to a large frigate. I have never heard of such a thing in the mermaid mythology. One last major problem I had with the movie dealt with the presence of the Spanish. Like the British, they were after the Fountain of Youth. Only their leader, known as the Spaniard (portrayed by Óscar Jaenada), called himself destroying the Fountain in the name of his king and the Catholic Church, as some kind of stance against paganism. Worse, he possessed the very chalices that needed to be used to drink the Fountain’s water. Yet, he did not bother to smash them, until he was at the Fountain’s location. Why? And what in the hell were Elliot and Rossio thinking? Why include such a storyline that proved to be irrelevant, epsecially since Jack was able to use the Fountain’s water after its so-called destruction?

I hear that Disney Studios and Bruckheimer are planning a fifth movie. I can understand this decision, considering that“On Stranger Tides” raked up a great deal of profit at the box office. Frankly, I wish they would change their minds. I honestly do not care how much money the movie had made. After watching it, I realized that a fourth movie should not have been made . . . at least from an artistic point of view. It featured too much sloppy writing and characterizations for me to truly enjoy. “On Stranger Tides” might prove to be the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie that I cannot consider as a favorite.

“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

 

“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

Based upon Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, ”ATONEMENT” told the story about how the lies and misunderstandings of 13-year-old girl from a nouveau-riche English family affected the romance between her older sister and the son of the family’s housekeeper. The movie starred James McAvoy, Keira Knightely and Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan.

Comprised in four parts (like the novel), ”ATONEMENT” began with the 13 year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring novelist with a crush on Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s housekeeper. Robbie, along with Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) have both returned for the summer in 1935, following their education at Cambridge. Although both Robbie and Cecilia have been aware of each other at Cambridge, neither have not bothered to acknowledged their romantic interest in each other until recently. Also at the Tallis home for the weekend are Briony and Cecilia’s cousins – the 15 year-old Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) and her younger twin brothers – and their older brother Leon’s friend, the owner of a chocolate factory named Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch).

After Briony had witnessed several disturbing scenes – at least in her eyes – between Robbie and Cecilia, she comes to the conclusion that Robbie might be a sexual threat to Cecilia. Matters worsened when Briony joined the rest of the household in the search for Lola’s twin brothers, who had ran off in protest against their parents’ upcoming divorce. During the search for the twins, Briony witnessed the rape of her cousin Lola on the family estate by a man in a dinner suit. In the end, Briony claimed that the man she saw raping Lola was Robbie. Aside from Cecilia, the rest of the family believed Briony and Robbie ends up being sent to prison. At the outset of World War II, the British government released Robbie from prison on condition that he enlist as a private in the British Expeditionary Force. The rest of the movie, set during the early years of World War II, featured Robbie’s brief reunion with Cecilia – who had become a nurse – before his journey to France and the now 18 year-old Briony’s (Romola Garai) experiences as a wartime nurse.

”ATONEMENT” turned out to be a first-rate film about the destructive consequences of lies and illusions. Both director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton structured the movie in an unusual way in which not only did they allow moviegoers different conflicting perspective on certain incidents in the story – a prime example would be both Briony and Robbie’s different points-of-view on an incident regarding Cecilia’s retrieval of a broken vase from the estate fountain, but also quite cleverly hinted that certain aspects of story – especially the World War II segments – may have been colored by Briony’s own emotions and imagination. Also, Wright, along with art directors Ian Bailie, Nick Gottschalk and Niall Moroney; and production designer Sarah Greenwood did an excellent job in re-creating the rich atmosphere of Britain in the mid-1930s and 1940 and especially the Dunkirk expedition. I also have to commend Paul Tothill for the film’s superb editing. Tothill managed to give ”ATONEMENT” a rhythmic style that matched the sound of a typewriter that added an illusionary sense to the unfolding story. In other words, by editing the story in a way that allowed certain scenes to be told from different points of view and added a sense of illusion, Tothill’s work gave the audience a false sense of illusion – at least for those who have never read McEwan’s novel.

I do have one quibble about the movie’s production . . . and I have to place the blame on Wright’s direction. I am referring the sequence that featured Robbie’s arrival at the beach at Dunkirk. At first glance, I was struck by the spectacle of Wright’s direction and Seamus McGarvey’s photography of the entire montage. Like I said . . . at first. Unfortunately, the montage ended up lasting several minutes too long. Not much time had passed when I found myself longing for it to end. I realized that Wright wanted to reveal the horror and chaos of war in all of its glory. But in the end, he simply went too far.

I must admit that I was not as impressed by most of the cast of ”ATONEMENT” as most critics and moviegoers. There was nothing earth-shattering about most of the performances . . . just good, solid work. Many moviegoers and critics had been surprised when both James McAvoy and Keira Knightley failed to earn Academy Award nominations. After watching the movie, I am not really surprised. Mind you, both gave very competent performances as the two lovers – Robbie and Cecilia But I had two problems with McAvoy and Knightley. One, their screen chemistry was not that explosive, considering the heated romance of their characters. It took a love scene inside the Tallis library to truly generate any heat between them. And two, I think their performances were hampered by Wright’s decision to allow the characters to speak in a staccato style that was prevalent in the movies of the 1930s and 40s in both Hollywood and Britain. I hate to say this, but McAvoy and Knightley never really managed to utilize this speech pattern with any effectiveness. There were times when their attempts to use it threatened to make their performances seem stiff and rushed. Perhaps they were simply too young and inexperienced.

On the other hand, I was very impressed by the three actresses who portrayed Briony Tallis at different stages in her life. Legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave portrayed a 70-80 year-old Briony, who had not only wrote a novel based upon the events surrounding Robbie’s arrest, but also confessed to the mistake she had committed decades earlier. And Romola Garai portrayed the character as an 18 year-old wartime nurse. Both actresses did an excellent job of portraying these older versions of Briony. But it was the young actress Saoirse Ronan who stole the movie as the 13 year-old Briony, whose naivety, jealousy toward Cecilia and Robbie’s budding romance and penchant for illusions led to devastating consequences for the romantic pair. Unlike McAvoy and Knighteley, Ronan gave a superb and natural performance as the confused and emotional Briony. It is not surprising that her work eventually earned BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress.

Before I end this review, I have to point out something that trouble me about ”ATONEMENT”. I might as well admit that I have never read McEwan’s novel . . . which is why the following storyline left me feeling confused. From what I have read about the film and the novel, Briony’s cousin, Lola Quincey, had been raped by the Tallis’ guest, Paul Marshall. And yet . . . she married the man, five years later. Why? Was it because she never knew that Marshall had been the one who had raped her? But judging from the hostile look she had given Briony at her wedding, Lola seemed well aware of that fact. Did Marshall actually raped her? Or had he seduced her that night the twins disappeared and Robbie was arrested? Perhaps the novel made the details of Lola’s storyline clearer. The movie left it murky. At least for me.

In the end, I must admit that ”ATONEMENT” proved to be one of the best movies released in 2007. Was it the best movie of that year? I have no idea. I have not seen ”NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”. At least not yet. But despite some of the movie’s flaws, director Joe Wright managed to lift the usual Merchant Ivory façade of Britain’s past and create an emotionally dark film from Ian McEwan’s novel.