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ATONEMENT

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Ian McEwan’s novel about love, lies, guilt and the power of storytelling itself receives an impeccable adaptation from Joe Wright, who lavishes on it every bit as much attention to the tone and style of its source as he did to Jane Austen in his debut film, “Pride and Prejudice.” There’s a certain intentional archness to “Atonement” that makes it more an object of admiration than of emotional power, but it’s a joy to watch the resources of cinema deployed to such impressive effect.

The initial reels of the film are devoted to a single summer day in 1935 at the Tallis estate in rural England. Masterfully juggling the perspectives of different characters to mingle truth with misunderstanding and deliberate deception, Wright, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey expertly lay out how precocious teen Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who’s infatuated with the housekeeper’s handsome son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), witnesses a passionate tryst between him and her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Stung by what she considers a betrayal, Briony uses what she’s learned as a result of Robbie’s unwise employment of her as a go-between to accuse him of a crime she knows he didn’t commit, resulting in his eventually being given a choice of serving out a prison sentence or joining the British army after war breaks out.

Robbie and Cecilia are barely able to reconnect before he’s shipped off, but while he struggles to survive the evacuation at Dunkirk and she works as a nurse in a London hospital, Briony (now played by Romola Garai) tries to expiate her feelings of guilt by training as a nurse as well and persuading Cecilia to forgive her. The final act sees Briony make her apologies to her sister and the returned Robbie, but in a coda featuring Vanessa Redgrave as a far older Briony—now an accomplished novelist—there’s a twist that contrasts reality with a new deception, but this time to more beneficial affect.

Throughout, “Atonement” is from the visual perspective a deliberately artful piece of work, no more so than in an amazing, breathlessly prolonged tracking shot on the beach on Dunkirk that rivals anything put on screen to date (“Russian Ark” notwithstanding). That’s but the most astonishing moment of what’s a technical tour de force from first frame to last, in which the work of McGarvey, production designer Sarah Greenwood, art director Ian Bailie, costumer Jacqueline Durran, makeup and hair stylist Ivana Primorac and editor Paul Tothill is absolutely outstanding. And Dario Marianelli’s score captures the period tone nearly as well as they do.

The artfulness continues into the performances, which aim for a slightly artificial attitude that can sometimes seem affectedly old-fashioned but actually give the action the slightly italicized tenor that suits what is, after all, McEwan’s highly literary approach to a tale of love long denied—a story that’s as much about the skill of the teller as it is about what’s told. Though both can seem to overdo the stiff-upper lip conventions, McAvoy, whose potential seemed to have been exaggerated in past films, here actually comes into his own as a leading man, and Knightley nicely differentiates between the flighty Cecilia of the opening scenes and the more intense woman of the latter portion of the picture. As for Briony, young Ronan nails the tight-jawed confusion of the girl; it’s a pity that Garai is less impressive as the older version, coming across as rather pallid. Happily Redgrave arrives to redeem the character in the later stages, and the rest of the cast, particularly Juno Temple as Briony’s cousin Lola and Benedict Cumberbatch as her brother’s smarmy friend Paul, hold up their responsibilities admirably, though most of them, like the leads, adopt a deliberately theatrical pose.

As a Masterpiece Theatre venture played in a heightened style, “Atonement” won’t attract viewers whose tastes run to explosion-laden Hollywood action flicks. But those searching for a film of rare refinement and artistry will agree that its makers have absolutely nothing to apologize for.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

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Sidney Lumet has been making movies for fifty years, ever since “Twelve Angry Men” (1957). It’s been a bumpy career, marked by some excellent films but, especially in the later period, mostly mediocre ones. That’s why it’s so good to see him rally as an octogenarian to produce a picture as dramatically exciting as this one, a moody, expertly-crafted combination of crime story and domestic drama with a superb ensemble cast, told at a high pitch that threatens to slip into parody but never quite crosses the line.

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is basically a modern film noir about a botched robbery involving a dysfunctional family, but Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson have revved it up with some fancy narrative footwork, breaking the story into discrete scenes focusing on the individual characters and then shuffling them around chronologically to provide changing perspectives on the misguided crime and its ramifications that eventually coalesce in the end. In theory the effect of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back structure should be self-consciously arty and precious, but in practice it’s pulled off so deftly that it makes for an engaging puzzle rather than an annoying trick, enriching the narrative rather than simply juicing it up.

That’s attributable not just to the canny script and crisply vital direction, though, but to an excellent cast working at peak form. Philip Seymour Hoffman anchors the film as Andy Hanson, the snide, ostensibly well-heeled and super-confident payroll manager at a Manhattan real estate firm. But actually he’s been embezzling funds to support a drug habit, and an impending audit threatens his whole existence. That’s why he enlists his weakling younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke)—a divorced salesman at the same firm who’s way behind in child-support payments (and is also having a torrid affair with Andy’s wife Gina, played by Marisa Tomei)—in a “victimless” robbery scheme involving the jewelry store their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) run in a suburban shopping center. Naturally the heist—in which Hank, unbeknownst to Andy, involves a singularly inept confederate (Bryan F. O’Byrne)—goes very wrong, and the brothers find their lives unraveling as their father obsessively seeks to find the guilty parties and avenge his loss.

The picture is thus not merely the anatomy of a robbery gone awry but a portrait of a family disintegrating under the weight of old crimes and misdemeanors, and the mixture invests what might have been just a slick genre exercise with deeper emotional currents. It’s masterfully acted down the line, predictably by Hoffman and Finney, who draw remarkable pictures of desperation and fury, but—more surprisingly, by Hawke, who makes Hank genuinely pathetic as well as jittery, and Tomei, who gets Gina’s combination of tired contempt for Andy self-loathing just right. And Lumet showcases the performances beautifully, working with cinematographer Ron Fortunato to create an atmosphere of foreboding within compositions that add just a dash of stylization to gritty, naturalistic settings and of hysteria to the action within them. And he punctuates a usually straightforward approach with occasional virtuoso touches, as in a remarkable tracking sequence when Andy is first shown visiting the sleek apartment of his drug supplier. Carter Burwell’s supple score adds to the ominous atmosphere.

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is in many respects a testimony to the sort of old-fashioned craftsmanship represented by a man like Sidney Lumet. There’s a rightness to what he does here that seems effortless but is the fruit of a half-century’s experience. And yet the picture is in no way a relic or an exercise; it seems so fresh and intense that you might mistake it for the work of a young man. It would be an apt conclusion to a distinguished career. But it’s so good one hopes that Lumet will go on to make lots more movies of this quality.