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Peace and War

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It's the story of a girl who sees something, and thinks she knows what it means, but later isn't sure. That, or something like it, is the explanation adult Briony Tallis (Romola Garai) gives for the very bad behavior of child Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), which results in bitter tragedy for her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and her lover, Robbie (James McAvoy).

You could say something similar about this adaptation of Ian McEwan's beloved novel "Atonement." We see something at times very good, but in the end we aren't sure what it means, or whether the filmmakers do, either. The resulting film has a break between the first and second halves that is also fairly tragic, though not as awful as imprisonment and induction into the hapless British infantry during World War II.

"Atonement" has been duly lauded for its technical brilliance. Director Joe Wright, working from a script by Christopher Hampton, has combined wonderfully framed shots and dazzling choreography with a restrained story -- told, in the film's highest achievement, in an ingenious structure.

The entire first half takes place on a languid summer day at a gorgeous estate in pre-World War II England. We follow young Briony as she observes the impending entanglement between her sister and Briony's unrequited crush, Robbie, a former servant financially adopted by their father. The girls' older brother (Patrick Kennedy) arrives late in the day for dinner, bringing with him part of the trouble that impels confused Briony to rend the lovers asunder. This whole section of "Atonement" is breezy, pleasantly paced and full of directorial flourish. Little nuances, such as the typewriter pounding away whenever fanciful Briony (she's a budding author) marches into view, are tucked everywhere.

Briony's mischief, banishing McAvoy's Robbie into the maw of war, disturbs more than a summer idyll. It sends the film into a rehash about thwarted true love and, as petty as it might sound, undoes a rare successful Hollywood pairing. In the book we're compensated by gritty accounts of war and triage nursing (which may or may not have been plagiarized, but that's the stuff of another tale). The movie tries to say something about truth, but mostly what I recall is Knightley cooing clichés such as "Come back to me!" McAvoy spends the second half slowly paling from septicemia or disuse — it's hard to tell. Put it this way: With "Atonement" you begin "Up at the Villa" but end with "A Very Long Engagement." (R) 122 min. S



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