Released 2008. Director: Joe Wright
A LIFETIME OF REGRETS. A lifetime spent atoning for a malicious mistake. A young girl’s callous lie shatters the lives of three people, causing irreversible damage and tearing apart relationships. Atonement is a period drama of a budding love that never has the chance to truly blossom, and the high price to pay for some unkind and untrue words spoken in haste and spite.
The movie opens on a perfect summer day in 1935, in a stately country house in England. 13-year-old Briony Tallis looks out the window and sees her older sister Cecilia and their housekeeper’s son Robbie by the fountain in the garden. Briony sees something she doesn’t understand, but thinks she does.
That evening, in front of a room of dinner guests and family, Briony tells a brazen lie, emboldened by her own sense of justice and misguided certainty. Little does she know that from that moment on, nothing she does can ever undo what she has just done.
Atonement is a highly polished and technically accomplished movie. Beautifully photographed, superbly adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel, skilfully edited and lovingly directed, it is an epic romance that shimmers with a tender glow and burns with deep sorrow and loss.
All three principal cast members give star-making performances. Keira Knightley reigns as the leading lady of literary adaptations, once again elegant, natural and diction-perfect. James McAvoy extends his emotional range, gaining recognition as the next marquee name to watch out for. Young Saoirse Ronan stamps a compelling impression in only her second movie, no doubt we’ll see more of her in the future.
What happens between these three characters on that hot summer day decides the course of their lives, and director Joe Wright takes time to build a strong foundation to Act One. He shows us different aspects of the same events by moving forward and backward in time frames, giving us first-person’s angle from each of the protagonists. We have the facts; we know the truth. But the characters don’t. And that makes us aware of drastic possibilities and impending tragedy, with our emotions stirred and our judgements formed.
As a result of Briony’s testament, Robbie loses his future as a medical doctor and instead, spends his life in prison and military service. Five years pass and Robbie is fighting the war in France, clutching literally to the dream that he will return and share a new life with Cecilia. In the movie’s most striking scene, Wright shows his amazing visual assurance when Robbie arrives at the beach of Dunkirk. In a long continuous take lasting over five minutes, Robbie encounters the bewildering reality of war in a surreal juxtaposition of death, injury, whimsy and the absurd.
Meanwhile, across the channel, Cecilia’s story continues as she waits for the return of her lover amidst the bombing of London. Through the separation, Cecilia and Robbie’s fervent commitment maintains an unbroken emotional flow until we reach the third and final act. What is revealed is devastating and will make you question what has gone before.
Early on in the country estate scenes, Wright has expertly constructed a flow of urgency with Dario Marianelli’s music played using the staccato of typewriter keys tapping, which creates an energy that’s purely cinematic and impossible in its original book form.
The momentum is something quite unthinkable for a literary novel set indoors. But the masterstroke is how it relates to the story’s underlying theme in regard to the power of writing, or the use of art, to make amends for sin and injustice.
The first thing we see when the movie starts is young Briony furiously typing out her play on a typewriter, which she plans to perform with her cousins after dinner on that fateful evening. This idea of typing has a significant purpose that only comes to light at the very end.
It is words – one woman’s words – telling the story from her own perspective with no corroboration. This is her memory, her wish, her attempt at redemption for a horrible thing she did which has haunted her all her life.
Not only is it a worthy successor to epics of timeless romance the likes of Out of Africa and The English Patient, Atonement is fresh, sensual, moving and sophisticated, literary adaptation for a new generation.