I’ve heard nothing but good things about Atonement, so I was glad to finally get a chance to see it. With all the hype surrounding it, the film had a lot to live up to in my expectations.
Atonement is based on the acclaimed British novel by Ian McEwan and follows the book in a fairly straightforward manner, capturing much of its original complexity, tension, heartbreak and insight into human character.
It takes place in 1935 Britain and continues over the span of many years, opening on a scorching summer day at the large country manor of the Tallis family. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis becomes frustrated with her cousins, 15-year-old Lola and nine-year-old twins, who are rehearsing for a play she has written and hopes to perform for her brother Leon that night. Looking out the window she happens to see her older sister Cecilia and Robbie, the housekeeper’s son, in a strange moment of anger and sexual tension.
Later, Leon invites Robbie to dinner, much to Cecilia’s dismay. Back at his own house, Robbie tries to write a letter of apology to Cecilia. He attempts and discards several versions, typing out a sexually explicit note in a moment of frustration. He eventually decides on a suitable letter and leaves for dinner. Along the way, Robbie encounters Briony playing by herself outside and asks her to take the note ahead to Cecilia. Immediately after, however, he remembers that he has accidentally taken the wrong note. Of course, Briony reads the note en route to the house and is shocked by its contents, but she delivers the letter as promised to Cecilia. When Robbie arrives, Cecilia answers the door. He tries to explain the situation, but she already understands. It turns out that Robbie and Cecilia have mutual feelings for one another, so they decide to go into the library to “spend some time together.” Briony happens to come across them and is treated to an even more disturbing display of sexuality, which she mistakenly interprets as Robbie attacking her sister.
Later in the evening the entire dinner party heads outside to the grounds to search for the twins, who have attempted to run away. In the darkness Briony comes across Lola being raped by a man who flees as Briony’s flashlight beam hits him.
Rushing to the side of a distraught and shaking Lola, who seems unsure of her attacker’s identity, Briony authoritatively states that it must have been Robbie—despite her knowledge that it was not him.
Briony then gives her solemn testimony to the police that she clearly saw Robbie attacking and raping Lola, thus changing the lives of Robbie and Cecilia, as well as her own, forever. Robbie is hurried off to prison for a crime he did not commit, and Cecilia is left alone and loveless. Briony spends the rest of her life trying to atone—hence, Atonement (work with me, people)—for what she did, and Robbie and Cecilia must find a way to make do with what is left of the lives that Briony’s lie has dealt them.
Like the novel, the film is divided into four major parts. The first part takes place at the Tallis estate, up to Robbie being taken away to prison. The story then jumps four years ahead to Robbie serving in World War II, along with flashbacks of Robbie and Cecilia attempting to rekindle their relationship.
The third part returns to center on Briony training as a nurse and attempting to reach out to her sister to apologize. Although Briony forces herself to help the wounded soldiers, she never feels that she has done enough to make up for her sins. The final chapter takes place in 1999, when Briony has become an old woman and offers her final act of atonement.
The story line is complex and the direction is perhaps more suited to moviegoers interested in aesthetics and artistry. Director Joe Wright makes extensive use of unusual camera angles and various other artistic effects to bring the story alive. The musical score is perfect, especially during the first part of the movie, where it is offset by the clacking of typewriter keys that further punctuate the movie’s tense and suspenseful atmosphere.
The war scenes are well crafted and original, unlike the standard fare of exploding bombs on blood-soaked fields that has come to be expected of movies set during WWII. Instead of montages of carnage, there are isolated incidences of savagery and senselessness: a group of schoolchildren, dead, left to rot in a forest; a soldier sunbathing on a beach littered with troops and the hulking carcass of a ship; and later, at the hospital, a French boy with a nine-inch hole in his head speaking to Briony about bread and love. The scenes are eloquent without being heavy-handed, moving without being political.
The acting in Atonement is also spectacular, especially that of Saoirse Ronan, who plays the young Briony, a precocious, fanciful child grappling with the complexities of adulthood. Her Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress is supremely deserved. Still, there is not a performance in the whole film that I would call less than superb, so it’s unclear why Knightley and McAvoy haven’t received their own Oscar nominations.
If you’re not partial to artistic, deep, heavy-meaning films, you should probably pass on Atonement. Don’t get me wrong, Atonement is an excellent movie. It would almost certainly be appreciated even more by film buffs or people who look for profundity and meaning in a movie.
Atonement has already won two Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture-Drama, and has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Expect it to win big at the Oscars—this is the kind of movie that becomes a classic.