"Atonement" is structurally comparable to a three-act play, with a brief epilogue. The three central characters are Briony, the younger daughter of the wealthy Tallis family, her older sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, Cecilia's childhood friend. Robbie is from a humble social background (his mother is one of the family's servants), but academically brilliant, and Mr Tallis has paid for him to be educated through grammar school and Cambridge, where he has obtained a First. A brilliant future seemingly awaits him, in whatever profession he chooses, and he wants to pursue a career in medicine.
Act I begins like an upper-class comedy of manners. The setting is the Tallis family's stately home, on a hot summer's day in 1935. Briony, a precocious thirteen-year-old with ambitions to be a writer, has written a play to be performed by herself and her three cousins, but this project proves abortive due to disagreements between them. Robbie has fallen in love with Cecilia and accidentally sends her a sexually explicit love-letter. In other circumstances this might have resulted in disgrace, but as Cecilia returns his passion the accident seems to have been a happy one. The tone of the film changes abruptly, however, when Briony's cousin Lola is sexually assaulted. Lola cannot identify her assailant, but Briony, who was a witness, falsely accuses Robbie. As a result, he is convicted of attempted rape and sent to prison.
In Act II, set in 1940, Robbie, released from jail, is now a soldier with the British Army in France. He is desperately trying to reach Dunkirk ahead of the advancing Germans, kept going not by fighting spirit or patriotism, but by the hope of returning to Cecilia, who has stood by him throughout his trial and imprisonment, becoming estranged from her family as a result. In Act III we see Briony, now eighteen, as a volunteer nurse in a London hospital. It is in this Act that the theme of atonement comes to the fore. Briony is starting to have doubts about her identification of Robbie as Lola's attacker, so much so that she offers to withdraw her previous testimony and help him clear his name. Her decision to work as a nurse rather than go to university and to devote herself to caring for the wounded can also be seen as an attempt to atone for the part she played in blighting the life of an innocent man and in tearing her family apart.
After "The Last King of Scotland" and "Becoming Jane", James McEvoy is the rising male star of the British cinema, and his performance here is the best yet that I have seen. Whereas Dr Garrigan in "The Last King
" was morally flawed, and Lefroy in "Becoming Jane" hid his better nature beneath a roguish exterior, Robbie is unambiguously heroic. McEvoy succeeds in conveying his character's basic decency, achieving the difficult task of making him good without making him seem dull.
Keira Knightley is another rising British star, and this is her second film with director Joe Wright after "Pride and Prejudice". Although she was good in the comedy "Bend it like Beckham", I think that her films with Wright are her best, suggesting that her future lies with serious drama rather than popcorn epics like "Pirates of the Caribbean" in which she seemed miscast. Her Cecilia was not only the loveliest, but also the liveliest and most spirited heroine of any film I have seen recently. Special mentions must also go to Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony and to Vanessa Redgrave who plays the now-elderly Briony in the epilogue, set in 1999. I felt, however, that Romola Garai, at 25, was too old as the eighteen-year-old Briony.
This was only Wright's second feature film, and he has already established himself as an accomplished director. "Pride and Prejudice" is a good film, but "Atonement" is better. Ian McEwan's book is among the best novels of recent years, and I doubt if any cinematic treatment could capture all its nuances. One of its themes in particular, the debate between literary traditionalism and modernism, seems beyond the scope of any visual medium, and Wright and the scriptwriter Christopher Hampton wisely steer clear of it. Hampton, who has turned the book into a very good screenplay, keeps McEwan's final twist, although it is here presented in a different way, with Briony revealing the truth in an TV interview.
If, however, the film does not capture all the literary nuances of the novel, Wright makes up for this with his extraordinary visual imagination, something sometimes lacking in films based upon novels. "Atonement" joins that list of films ("Far from Heaven" and "Girl with a Pearl Earring" are other examples that come to mind) where almost every scene seems composed like a painting. This is true not only of Act I, set in that beautiful stately home (actually Stokesay Court in Shropshire), but also of Act II, where Wright can find a terrible beauty even in war, especially in the scenes of the burning town and that long shot of the Dunkirk beaches in the grey morning light. Particularly moving was the scene where the British soldiers sing "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind". The second line of John Greenleaf Whittier's hymn is, of course, "Forgive Our Foolish Ways"- a particularly apt comment on war, and perhaps on the behaviour of some of the characters.
Also very good was Dario Marianelli's musical score, which (appropriately for a film in which writing plays an important part) incorporated the sound of typewriter keys tapping. Altogether an excellent film- I can only hope that its British origins and late summer (traditionally blockbuster season) release date will not prejudice the Academy against it when it comes to next year's Oscars. 9/10
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