Atonement (2007) Director: Joe Wright
“I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or… evasion… but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.” -final lines
Atonement is a beautiful, sobering picture that explores the nature of perspective, memory, and self-forgiveness. It is based on the well-celebrated novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, and it stars James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch, and a young Saoirse Ronan in her first big Hollywood film. Atonement is Joe Wright’s follow-up to his extraordinary breakthrough adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (also featuring Kiera Knightley) in 2005. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey received a well-deserved Oscar for his work on Atonement. The shots he captured are absolutely remarkable, and the shading, colors, and style changes as the film progresses from sunny to dark. It should also be noted that frequent Joe Wright collaborator, Dario Marianelli, created another wonderful score for this film.
Atonement is told in three acts. In Act I, we are introduced to green pastures and running waters at an English country estate, the home of the Tullis family. The tone is romantic and hopeful, yet it is also faded and blurry, as if in a dream from a far away place. Light flares are used ubiquitously. We meet Briony (Saoirse Ronan), aged thirteen, and an aspiring writer –each time she appears on camera we hear the sound of a typewriter. One day the young and impressionable Briony witnesses something she does not understand between Cecilia “Cee” (Kiera Knightley) and the son of the Tallis family housekeeper, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). The scene rewinds and we watch the scene from Robbie and Cecelia’s perspective –it is the seed of a budding romance between them both. Next Robbie writes a letter to Cecelia but he accidentally sends the wrong letter which contains graphic vulgarity (he wrote it for a personal laugh). Ever the creative mind, Briony quickly concocts a story in her head that Robbie is a sexual deviant when she discusses it with her cousin Lola. That night, Briony witnesses Robbie and Cecelia with one another in the library and she is confused, and later when her young twin cousins escape, everyone in the household ventures out to look for them but Briony witnesses a dark, shadowy man assaulting her cousin Lola out in the grass. The police are called and Briony blames Robbie who is then whisked away to prison despite the pleas of Cecelia.
Act II takes place during World War II. Robbie is part of a troupe of English soldiers retreating from France and he winds up finding his way to the beach at Dunkirk –herein we see an extraordinary, seemingly uncut, panorama of the soldiers waiting to be rescued. He wanders amidstt the carousing until he finds a movie screen projecting two lovers kissing, and weeps. Starting to show signs of sickness, he goes to sleep that night clutching a pile of postcards from Cecelia who has remained faithful to him all these years. Both Cecelia and Briony have become nurses in London in separate units, tending to brutally maimed men. We see snippets of real soldiers during the war which were shown at the behest of a historian on the set of the film. Briony tends to a man with a lethal brain injury, she talks to him while he dies. We learn that as a young girl Brioony once had a crush on Robbie. Then she attends the wedding of her cousin Lola and Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch) and she remembers that he was the man who assaulted Lola all those years ago. She writes to Cecelia with the hopes of meeting, but Cecelia does not respond having disowned her younger sister. So Briony visits her one day to atone for what she has done. Here, we see a surprising scene in which Robbie and Cecelia are together, Briony is chastised, but they devise a plan to correct the record for Robbie.
Suddenly, we are jolted into the present-day. Act III is something of an epilogue. We see an elderly, emotional woman on television. It is Briony who is dying of vascular dementia. She has become a successful novelist and her twenty-first and last novel (or what she calls her “first”) is the story we have been watching. She confesses that the final scene of her apology to Robbie and Cecelia is fictional. In truth, Robbie died of septicemia waiting to be rescued at Dunkirk, and Cecelia died during the Blitz when a bomb hit a water pipe at Balham station and everyone hiding in the tube drowned. Briony wished to give them both a chance at happiness in fiction as atonement for her past sins. Literature becomes her public apology, a chance to set the record straight. Can we trust her recollections? We may never know. The film closes with imaginary scenes of Robbie and Cecelia playfully running along the coastline to a cottage by the sea.
It is a shockingly powerful ending to a wonderful story, thanks to the brilliance of novelist Ian McEwan. How do we atone for wrongs we have committed in the past? Can we ever truly set things right again? The film explores these questions and it rather brilliantly executes situations in different time signatures from multiple perspectives, while acknowledging them all, in the end, to be the mere recollections of an aging novelist who once made a mistake as a young girl.