Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Christopher Hampton (screenplay), Ian McEwan (novel)
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, and Vanessa Redgrave
Atonement isn’t a time capsule for your grandparents. If you’re looking for the lavish period drama with the costumes as the stars, it’s gone with the wind. This movie, yet another adaptation of a well-received if faded from memory book, is a love story for the modern age; that is to say, a pretty damn depressing one.
The movie starts off on a perfect 45-minute grace note, setting up the passionate exchange between Robbie (James McAvoy) and Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Cecilia is a wealthy daughter of an affluent family, Robbie is not. The thing that separates this fairly common class clash is bitter jealousy, brought along in the form of the innocent young Briony (Saoirse Ronan).
In Atonement‘s rapturous first third, director Joe Wright weaves a delicate tale fueled by powerful emotions- love, hate, lust- that cannot possibly co-exist. Briony, another wealthy daughter if much younger, also has an innocent crush on Robbie. It is that innocence that ultimately tears the two apart.
Over the course of the sun-drenched and then night-soaked day, Robbie and Cecilia share passion-fueled sex in the library, a note is misinterpreted, and a rape is comitted elsewhere. Briony knows about it all, and her misinterpretation of the note sparks jealousy, and she blames Robbie for the rape.
It’s a pity Briony has to grow up as the film progresses. Not that her story isn’t the most entertaining thing in the movie no matter who plays her, it’s that Saoirse Ronan is so good that you notice when she isn’t there. Her haunting stare as she tells a lie that resonates throughout the rest of her life pierces the viewer. It’s cold, calculating, and should be way beyond an actress of her years.
Following the brilliance of the film’s first third is a lesser movie, if still a good one. Robbie goes to war in WWII to earn his freedom from prison, Cecilia and Briony work as nurses. The two can never forgive Briony for what she did, and she is unable to forgive herself.
The lovers do meet again a couple of times as the movie takes its course, but like all tragedies, their love never comes to fruition. Briony grows up to be an acclaimed novelist, and it is in the final, stunning scene that the movie regains the power it has in the beginning.
Vanessa Redgrave, in a singular scene as the elderly writer, maps out the movie’s whole purpose: can you redeem yourself through your fiction? When she reveals that much of the segment where she is a nurse (played by Romola Garai) was a rewrite from what actually happened, the true weight of that decades-old lie seems to hit her full force. The answer to the question posed by this movie, appears to be a resounding “No.”
The three women who play Briony do give the best performances in the movie, but James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are also terrific. In their brief time together onscreen, it is believable that they did fall in love, and it was at the wrong time. Much is made about the scene in the library, and it is one of the most passionate exchanges to singe the screen in years.
The weakest part of the movie is Robbie’s escapades in WWII. A lot was also made about the 10-minute tracking shot that chronicles his walk along a beach after a battle. It does show a lot of aspects of the war, but it’s really only impressive on a technical level and doesn’t really do anything for the story.
As a whole, Atonement has been largely forgotten, as most movies that are nominated for Best Picture and don’t win are. 2007 was one of the greatest years for modern movies, and though No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Sweeney Todd all came out the same year, it’d be difficult to forgive yourself for looking past Atonement.