Directed by Joe Wright
There are only two ways that the events in Atonement are presented. They are presented as they happen, but they are also presented through the conspicuous eyes and imagination of Briony Tallis. The two points of view present one of the main themes of the movie, which is that everything can look rather different if seen from another perspective--and mistakes can be made if you judge only on one perspective.
The film begins with Briony (Saoirse Ronan) at the precocious age of thirteen. She is pounding away furiously on her typewriter, spewing out a play about the futility of falling in love too quickly. The summarization of her play alone shows that she is probably far too brilliant for her age. She scampers around her large estate glancing things with her small, blue, beady eyes, when she sees her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and the housekeeper's son Robbie (James McAvoy) talking by the pool, and taking part in other mischievous activities.
We see the same encounter between Cecilia and Robbie later in the film, but from their perspective, and we see it as a much more innocent moment. Robbie has spent the last few years in school, which was paid for by Cecilia's father. Cecilia uses this information to act like she dislikes Robbie, but truthfully they both lust deeply after each other. It is not long after that moment that the two become honest with each other and their feelings, and fall for each other rather passionately. Perhaps too passionately, as young Briony catches their consummation of love on the library bookcase.
Of coarse, Briony does not understand what she has seen, and goes to the police with a rather vicious lie. Influenced not only by misunderstanding, but also by her own jealous, romantic feelings for Robbie, Briony says something that she fully believes is true, but is fully a figment of her own exasperatingly large imagination. This has disastrous consequences as the young, fleeting love between Cecilia and Robbie is destroyed as Robbie is arrested for a crime he did not commit.
The film is set against the backdrop of World War II, and much of the second half of the film deals with it firsthand. Robbie is given the option of joining the Army, as apposed to continuing out his sentence in prison. Cecilia and Briony both have become nurses at different hospitals, where they often see the harsh reality of war battle. Briony, now 18, has grown to realize the immense power of the fib that she told, and is trying constantly, but unsuccessfully, to forgive herself for it.
Adapted from Ian McEwen's novel, which was thought to be 'un-adaptable', the film constructs the material successfully in order for the audience to comprehend it. There are many moments that are shown twice to detail how clearly the mind of a child can misconstrue the situation, but the film also balances the change of time. The film spans over an entire decade (and sometimes longer), and the subtlety at which the stories at home and the stories at battle are connected do not baffle.
The war is shown in brutal, grizzly actuality. Robbie's journey through the evacuation at the beach in Dunkirk is shot in one beautiful, languid tracking shot. A scene depicting Briony in the middle of a hospital being quickly filled with wounded soldiers is both breathtaking and unvarnished. This film probably has the most unrelenting depiction of war violence of any film since Saving Private Ryan. That being said, the film uses the wretchedness of the war to show the separation of the two lovers. They keep writing each other letters, and are sometimes able to see each other briefly, but their relationship can never flourish because of Briony's mistake.
In the nature of many of the Merchant-Ivory films, the real beauty of Atonement is the astonishing skill in which the film was made. Their are several stages to the story, each filled with it's own color and tone. War scenes are desaturated, scenes in the estate are filled with an almost dreamlike brightness, and the hospitals are shown in such sharp, conflicting colors such as red, blue, and white. Joe Wright, making his first film since his wistfully beautiful version of Pride & Prejudice, makes here a film that is so sharp and polished, that it is a marvel. Everything from Dario Marianelli's blisteringly powerful score down to the exquisite choice of costumes is note perfect.
McAvoy, a young Scottish actor, fresh off of his success in The Last King of Scotland, gives his most eye-catching performance in this film. Robbie is an honest, good-hearted man plagued by a sexual infatuation that gets him in the biggest trouble of his life. Equally, Keira Knightley is ravishing as Cecilia. This is not a role of much variety, nor does it spark much complexity in the story itself, but Knightley treats the character justly, and allows it to come into it's fruition. They both depict the most tragically doomed couple since Jack and Rose in Titanic.
In a piece of wondrous casting, the character of Briony is played by three different actresses, each representing a different part of Briony's life. Saoirse Ronan's mouse-like portrayal of the young, suspicious Briony is probably the most captivating. Ronan's performance consists of jealousy, anger, heartbreak, and intelligence, but the young 13-year-old is able to pull it off. Depicting Briony as the 18-year-old nurse, wishing to atone for what she's done is Romola Garai. She does a wonderful job of showing a woman seeking forgiveness, surrounded by death. Then lastly, the legendary Vanessa Redgrave portrays Briony decades later, as a much respected novelist who unleashes some very serious irony to the story.
The film is epic and sweeping, and is beautiful to watch based on it's aesthetic value alone. The only thing that isn't beautiful in this movie is some of the actions some of the characters partake in, sometimes unwillingly. Atonement is a great achievement in filmmaking and is one of the very best films of this year. Few films are able to take all the small aspects of a movie, and perfect them the way this film does, and still have time to tell a heartbreaking story that is beautifully acted.