Release Date: December 7th, 2007 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joe Wright Actors: Saoirse Ronan, Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Brenda Blethyn, Juno Temple, Benedict Cumberbatch, Vanessa Redgrave
hile some may be astounded at the considerably unguessable conclusion, or question what direction the film will take due to the constant shifting back and forth through time, “Atonement” nevertheless provides a story few have seen before. With piercing typewriter sounds blended into a strikingly catchy score, period-piece authenticity in sets and designs, and superlative acting all around, this is a sweeping, epic love story that is sure to receive Oscar attention in the coming months. Tragedies as rich and fulfilling as this are seldom indeed.
Young Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) feels matured beyond her age of 13, thinking only of adult tasks such as writing and conducting her play, “The Trials of Arabella.” When she sees her older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) being approached by Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son – for whom she has a childish crush – she becomes jealous. That evening, visitor Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) is attacked and raped by a friend of the family during a search for her runaway brothers – and Briony names Robbie as the culprit. Wrongfully accused, but with no witnesses to clear him, he is sentenced to incarceration. Given the option to serve in the army rather than to rot in prison, he is quickly swept up into the atrocities of World War II. Meanwhile, Cecelia waits for him faithfully, serving as a nurse, while Briony grows up to realize the anguish through which she’s put the two lovers – and desperately seeks a way to right her wrongs.
The most discommodious aspect of “Atonement” is the manner in which time is lapsed and then backtracked – or mixed up in every method possible. At certain points, the film jumps forward by several years, slides back a few months, repeats events from different characters’ perspectives, and meets back up with itself at others. There’s even a segment that plays in reverse and in slow-motion. It’s an artistic concept, but seems to serve little purpose – other than to be a prominent gimmick – in a film that focuses so heavily on character development and an unconventional romance.
The love story is unique in the sense that the intervention by Briony causes a need for narration from only one viewpoint, despite scenes being shown from many contexts. She struggles with the guilt of realizing how her meddling may prevent her from ever being able to achieve true atonement, presented through her career as a well-known author, which gives her an opportunity to write an autobiographical account of her life (which includes her horrendous mistakes and how they affected Cecelia and Robbie). With the beauty of her brand of fiction (and control over its telling) comes embellishment and adjectives that mask the truth, which she movingly abandons in a final attempt to give the two lovers happiness. For her, truth no longer serves a purpose – and in an effort to amend her estrangement from both family and, ultimately, love (what she refers to as an act of kindness), she writes her story the way she believes it ought to be told (a touch of the most satisfyingly extreme poetic license).
Technically, though there are a few visible prop inaccuracies, the cinematography is gorgeous and the music is unforgettable. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey employs long tracking shots and seamlessly edited sequences in which the camera follows characters as they witness the aftermaths of various battlefields. The lifeless bodies at a decimated girls’ school are laid out like railroad tracks; enemy horses are summarily executed as if, ironically, humans; and a beachfront war zone showcases the dead and dying troops as they attempt to regroup. Through each scene, the score beautifully accompanies the imagery, with the most marked of all the penetrating typewriter strokes that permeate the rhythms of the piano-heavy theme music. This level of storytelling and artistry is a rare treat, demonstrating director Joe Wright’s knack for working with adapted material (here, a screenplay by Christopher Hampton based on Ian McEwan’s novel), having previously helmed “Pride & Prejudice” in 2005.
– Mike Massie