Starring: Kiera Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, and Vanessa Redgrave
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan
Rating: **** (four stars out of five)
Atonement is a movie not easily forgot, for more than just a few reasons. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous (more on that later). The acting is nigh on perfect. The direction is flawless. But it’s the story, the writing, that is the real star of this film.
I will admit that I have not read McEwan’s novel even though it’s been recommended to me countless times. After seeing this film, I will also admit that it’s been added to my reading list. I can therefore not judge how well the novel translated onto the screen. I can only make assumptions based on how well the adaption is, and my assumption is that is ridiculously well done.
Aside from the colorful and sumptuous cinematography, the pacing of this film is perfect. With the stamping of each letter on a typewriter, the story gains momentum in a truly unforgettable way. The music moves to the tapping of the keys, the scenes cut and drive forward with each typed letter. The use of the typewriter works perfectly with the material presented in the film.
We open on a young Briony Tallis, typing away frantically on her typewriter, finishing her latest masterpiece. It’s a play to be performed for her older brother Leon when he arrives to the English manse in which she lives with her wealthy family. What follows afterwards carefully builds to Briony crying wolf. We meet Paul Marshall, Leon’s friend, whom we immediately discover has a dark secret. We meet Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Knightley). Knightley plays her with ease, showing a maturity she hasn’t had a chance to show in her career yet. We also meet Robbie Turner (McAvoy), the Tallis’ gardener who’s education has been paid for by Briony’s father.
Most importantly, we see Cecilia and Robbie together, and the sexual tension and mutual attraction is immediately apparent. They meet at the fountain in a scene full of sexuality. It is this scene that Briony witnesses from her bedroom window. It is this scene of attraction between two young lovers that Briony misunderstands — or rather, can’t understand because she is so young. This perfectly played and directed scene becomes the centerpiece for the rest of the film.
That night, she stumbles upon Robbie and Cecilia in the heat of passion. By the end, Robbie is in prison by Briony’s word, as incorrect as her word may be.
Several long years later, Robbie is trying to make his way through war-torn France back to the beach to be evacuated back to England. Cecilia has moved into a small apartment and is working as a nurse. Briony, who now understands exactly what she did, has begun working at a military hospital as a nurse as well, trying her best to pay penance for what she’s done.
The film’s ending monlogue, delivered by Vanessa Redgrave, reveals the true meaning of the title, and just how harmful a single lie can be.
The Oscar’s are, unfortunately, going to largely look over this film. I hate saying this about such an amazing and beautiful film, but it’s the weakest contender amongst the Best Picture nominees. The only award I think it will bring home at the end of the day is Best Cinematography. The scene at the beach of Dunkirk, a 5 1/2 minute miracle of a shot, is simply one of the most amazing shots I’ve ever seen. It deserves the award for that scene alone.