Today I saw Atonement, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.
This film has all the hallmarks of a Best Picture candidate: attractive stars, solid acting, sweeping landscapes, love, war, betrayal and dueling sisters. But what it lacked, was the 'it' factor that takes the characters to another (necessary) level.
In the story we briefly see Cecilia (Knightley) fall in love/lust with Robbie (McAvoy). Their chemistry isn't electric enough for the audience to feel the jolt of their passion, but their intentions are explained in a letter intercepted by Cecilia's mischievous younger sister Briony (played by three different actresses, to demonstrate each age).
Briony, also a budding writer, uses the letter and a glimpse of consensual intercourse that she interrupts, as her basis for pinning a rape on Robbie, though she knows he's not guilty. It seems she was jealous of his affection for her sister and would've liked him for herself.
This selfish action costs Robbie his freedom and Cecilia years of misery as she pines for him. It also eats away at the older Briony, who wrestles with coming forward to right her catastrophic wrong.
In the middle, we see Robbie go to war and both sisters become nurses. This is the part of the film that nearly put me to sleep. Maybe I'm an unabashed romantic, but couldn't there have been some steamy scenes of them fantasizing about one another? Couldn't we witness more correspondence between the two, or at least see more of the agonizing ways they passed time during their separation?
I believed that the younger sister really did want to atone for her sins, but I wasn't entirely convinced that a soldier and a nurse, a great distance apart from each other, were going to stay so true to their hearts. And I certainly wanted to.
At the core of the story is a beautiful message: true love is worth waiting for no matter what the cost in time.
This ending leaves pessimists satisfied that the lies added up to ultimate heartbreak; the romantics will believe their characters passed in succession so they could find harmony on the other side.
A great love story this is not, but at least it leaves us pondering.