After watching three fairly epic Scorsese films in a row I was ready for a little bit of a break and thankfully there was a little bit more refinement waiting for me in my next selection of Joe Wright’s Atonement. However, though it initially looks sedate, Atonement deals with some rather shocking themes and ends with a rather heartbreaking admission.
The majority of Atonement is devoted to the story, and the storytelling ability, of Briony Tallis who we first meet as a thirteen-year-old in the summer of 1935. Almost the entire first half of Atonement takes place over the course of a single day as Briony’s lies have far-reaching consequences. What I found clever about Atonement was the way we see events from Briony’s point-of-view and then we flashback to see how they came about. So for example we spy her sister Cecilia emerging from a fountain in front of the dashing Robbie before finding out why. It’s Robbie’s feelings for Cecilia that land him in trouble when Briony finds an explicit letter from him meant for her sister. As revenge she tells the police that she saw Robbie force himself on her cousin Lola. This accusation, combined with Robbie’s letter, means that he’s sent to prison where he stays for four years. The action then flashes forward where Robbie is now a soldier in World War II after agreeing to join the army as a way out of prison. The majority of Robbie and Cecilia’s interaction in the film’s second half comes via letters which are read in some incredibly well-edited set pieces. Elsewhere, the now eighteen-year-old Briony has realised just what she’s done and is attempting to make amends with both Robbie and Cecilia. After an excellent reconstruction of the war-torn scenes on the sea at Dunkirk; we see what we believe happened to the film’s tragic couple. However the epilogue, featuring a much older incarnation of Briony, reveals what truly happened to her sister and Robbie. It ends with the news that the modern day Briony has finally written her own book; Atonement, based on the events of the film.
Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel puts Atonement’s focus fully on storytelling and he and Wright definitely demonstrate this throughout the course of the film. I personally loved seeing the narrative from different angles and also the way in which Seamus McGarvey framed Robbie’s letter writing so we could see the rude word that his correspondence contained. The film plays with narrative conventions and, when I first saw the film back in 2007, I was shocked by the older Briony’s final confession. Watching it now, I have to say that I enjoyed the first half of the film much more than the second. The lust-filled summer night was to me a much more engaging proposition than another film set during World War II. However, I feel that it’s the war portion of Atonement which piqued the interest of the Academy. To his credit McGarvey’s five-minute sweeping shot of the Dunkirk beaches were superbly handled. I personally also enjoyed Dario Marianelli’s Oscar-winning score which enhanced the drama perfectly and was at its best when it included the ominous typing of Briony’s typewriter.
Of the cast only young Saoirse Ronan was Oscar-nominated for her role as the youngest incarnation of Briony. To her credit the then unknown Ronan was utterly engaging as a young girl who’d just seen her first love in a compromising position with her sister. Ronan definitely gave the strongest portrayal of Briony which is surprising seeing as the oldest version of the character was played by Vanessa Redgrave. Meanwhile Keira Knightely and James McAvoy shared a heated chemistry as Cecilia and Robbie, a fact that made their romance all the more believable. Although not on the level of some of the epic films I’ve watched recently, Atonement is definitely a well-produced grown-up drama. Whilst I personally enjoyed its first half a lot more, there’s no denying that Joe Wright’s film more than deserved its place among that year’s five Best Picture nominees.