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Atonement (A Movie Review)

Updated: Sep 16, 2022




Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn, Juno Temple, Michelle Duncan, Gina McKee, Harriet Walters and Anthony Minghella.

Screenplay by Christopher Hampton.

Directed by Joe Wright.

Distributed by Focus Features.  123 minutes.  Rated R.

When a film has a title like Atonement, you’re probably not in for an uplifting time at the multiplex.

However, no one ever said that film has to be uplifting.  Sometimes a tragic film is even more fascinating than a happy one.

Atonement is, quite simply, one of the most dazzling, devastating films of the year.

It starts in a place of quiet opulence and glamour and ends up with three people’s happiness being completely destroyed by the childish act of a thirteen-year-old girl.  And yes, the girl was one of those three undone by the deed — one that she only partially understood to be wrong at the time.  It would not be until years later that she would truly realize what she had done and she would spend the rest of her life trying to live it down.

In 1935, on the opulent British country estate of the Tallis family, young daughter Briony (played with Oscar-worth intensity by young Saoirse Ronan) is a precocious and happy little girl who writes and produces her own plays for the family’s amusement.  That family includes her upwardly immobile upper-crust parents, her beautiful and slightly distant sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and several cousins.  Also visiting is Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the promising son of a servant (Brenda Blethyn) who has just graduated from Oxford.

It quickly becomes obvious that Robbie is strongly attracted to Cecilia — an attraction that she only first notices and reciprocates during an angry moment when he throws a broken part of a family heirloom into the fountain.  She strips off her dress and dives into the dirty water to retrieve it in only her slip.

We first see this scene played out from the bedroom window as Briony watches and the encounter seems a bit angry and violent.  Only later, when we are shown the scene from the point of view of the two involved, do we realize that the experience was shyly flirtatious as they both realize the effect she is having on him.

This is one of several examples in the film of how various people see the same acts in completely different ways, dependent on where they were and the emotional baggage they bring to the proceeding.

Briony, not understanding the feelings of the couple — and harboring a bit of a crush on Robbie herself — is cut to the quick by this apparently seamy encounter.  Then when Briony reads a pornographic note that Robbie wrote for Cecilia (with no intention of Cecilia reading) the words… well, one specific word… feel like a slap in the face to the little girl.  When she walks in on the couple’s shy consummation of their passion, wheels go into motion and none of the three will ever recover.

Later, when her young cousin is found by Briony being attacked by a man, Briony tells a lie — though the movie never totally states whether she realizes it to be a lie or if she truly believes in her immature way that she is right — that Robbie was the attacker.

This move sends Robbie to jail for several years and the only way he can be released is to fight in World War II.  Cecilia becomes estranged from her family — and most specifically from her little sister — becoming a nurse treating injured soldiers.  Briony, eventually realizing all the damage her rash accusation caused, also becomes a war nurse, trying desperately to make up for her past act.

This is McAvoy’s show – Knightley’s role is mostly supporting here.  Supporting in size not stature, mind you; Knightley’s character work is the most searing she has done yet on film, but the story really is more about her lover and her sister.

McAvoy smolders with dramatic tension.  Tragic, but resigned to his fate and buoyed by the promise of true love, he makes Robbie Turner come to tragic life with longing and barely checked rage.  One scene, a five-minute-long steadicam tracking shot of Turner and fellow soldiers walking through the devastating horror of wounded British soldiers awaiting rescue in Dunkirk, is as fine a piece of direction, camera-work and acting as has appeared on film this year.

Briony — played at different points in her life by the astonishing Ronan and a just about as good Romola Garai — takes a different road to get to much the same place.  As she tries, with limited success, to undo what she had done, you see how her entire life had been completely tied to this childhood-killing moment and she will never totally be past it.

By the time that the great Vanessa Redgrave appears in the end — in a cameo as an aged Briony looking back on the whole experience as a novelist finally taking on her most painful memory — we are given one last stark demonstration in the difference between appearances and reality.

Perhaps she is even correct when she suggests that sometimes a bit of artistic fantasy is preferable, because the real can just be too hard to take.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2007  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 6, 2007.

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