Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Saoirse Ronan, Harriet Walter, Brenda Blethyn
Directed by: Joe Wright
If you’ve ever wondered why I bother trying to see all Academy Award nominated films (as Atonement almost assuredly will be), despite the fact that the Academy often gets it wrong, leading me in the past to have watched some rather execrable movies, the answer is that doing so has led me to see some really good movies that I’d otherwise have no intention of seeing.
Atonement is just such a film, looking like some Masterpiece Theatre/Jane Austen-esque middlebrow fare that my wife watches when I’m not at home or am busy watching sports. Luckily, it is much more than that, shot by director Joe Wright in such masterful fashion that it’s hard not to admire the movie, even if it is a tad emotionally distant, as is common for these types of historical British films. Still, Wright is able to stir enough passion to draw us into the story, while using the reserved nature of his characters to heighten the intrigue of the film. Particularly effective is Wright’s blocking of the characters, with the actors adopting some stagey poses that evocatively shows the unreliable nature of some of the scenes, which we see through the eyes and memories of unreliable characters.
The movie adapts Ian McEwan‘s novel of the same name, follows Briony Tallis, who as a 13-year-old (Saoirse Ronan) witnesses an encounter between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), which leads to a misunderstanding that irrevocably changes the lives of all involved. Wright deftly deals with the altered perspectives by repeating scenes between Briony’s perspective and the actual events, without being unnecessarily repetitive, charging the otherwise reserved first half of the movie with real tension and eroticism.
The movie progresses five years, with Cecilia and 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) working as nurses and Robbie is serving as a private in the British Expeditionary Force during the early phases of the Second World War. Each character is dealling with the fallout from the misunderstanding, with the now-adult Briony seeking atonement for her role. It’s here that the movie changes from a Merchant Ivory-esque social drama set at the Tallis estate to become a more visceral affair, including an absolutely stunning five-minute tracking shot of the beach of Dunkirk (one of the year’s best scenes). If the earlier part of the movie was a little emotionally staid, this portion overcomes that easily, leading to the emotionally devastating final act that brings it all crashing together.
It’s the work in the final two acts that make Atonement more than merely a technically superior romantic drama that one can admire, and become a truly engaging story worth investing in.