Atonement is a classic British period film based on the critically acclaimed novel by the Booker Prize winning author Ian McEwain, and adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton. Set just as WWII is about to begin for Britain, the story pivots around two would-be lovers, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a well educated son of the families’ housekeeper, and Cicelia Tallis (Keira Knightley) who lives in the expansive mansion. They are kept apart by the vivid imagination of Cicelia’s 13-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan). Briony, who is quite the writer for her age, has a crush on Robbie, but knows that her older sister holds sway over him. Robbie has not yet won over Cicelia, and matters have become worse as he inadvertently breaks a family heirloom.
As an attempt at resolution, Robbie writes an apology note. Several drafts are typed out, some of them quite provocative. He settles on a short, polite version, and entrusts Briony to deliver it, just ahead of a family dinner that includes him as a guest. After he gives the letter to Briony, it dawns on him that the wrong version was placed into the envelope. Briony reads it of course, and is confused by the content. She delivers it to Cicelia without the envelope and the evening quickly goes out of control.
In town for the dinner is Leon Tallis (Patrick Kennedy) the brother, along with his friend Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), a successful chocolate magnet. The unusual house guest list is rounded out by the presence of three children, twin boys and a sister, Lola, a Lolita-type young girl. They are staying on while their parents work out marital problems (go figure). The dinner is interrupted when the miserable twin boys go missing, kicking off a massive search party at night. While covering her part of the estate, Briony comes across a man having his way with Lola in the weeds. Based upon all she has observed, and read, Briony is sure the violator was Robbie. The police are called, Briony’s statement is given and Robbie is hauled away.
From there the film moves forwards and backwards through a complex tapestry of time and space. Dreamlike and at times almost surreal, director Joe Wright keeps the viewers off balance, all the while maintaining complete cinematic control. You question the structure, the points of view, and the motivation of nearly everyone. Ultimately the tragic truth is revealed in the closing scenes by a now aged and dying Briony (Vanessa Redgrave).
The first and third acts are presented in a very straightforward style. The combat scenes through France with Robbie, who has traded his remaining jail sentence for an army uniform, and two other soldiers don’t look like your typical war movie. We later learn why. The Dunkirk beach scene, a crucial turning point in the war for the UK, is shot as if through gauze and includes an incredibly long tracking shot that captures the madness and mayhem of ordinary humans reacting to war.
Saorise Ronan, who is nominated as supporting actress for her role as the 13-year old Briony Tallis, is brilliant. The film opens in her room with her at the typewriter completing her first play. Her walk, stares, and voice are as if they have emanated from the the blunt strokes of her own typewriter. Her character is the tent pole of the story. The more she comes to grips with what she has done, the more she softens her voice and begins to float across the screen rather than march.
Strong performances all around, wonderfully constructed script, solid art direction and a score by Dario Marianelli that found ingenious ways to blend music with the sound of typewriter keys striking a platen. Would recommend Atonement to those looking for a serious, but not necessarily inspiring film. Visit the official site here.