13-year-old Briony Tallis is a girl with a huge imagination who loves to write. The film starts at her completion of a play, "The Trials of Arabella", a morality tale on love and the dangers of being too hasty with one's emotions. From her opening line in the prologue, various multisyllabic words that I didn't understand were employed, and the audience giggles at her pretension: evidently, this is a girl whose world is shaped with words, regardless of whether or not she understands them. Witnessing her sister Cecilia dive into a pool as their housekeeper's son Robbie watches after her, Briony pictures as scene she has no understanding of, and, by the end of the day, she will have changed lives for the worse, and she will spend the rest of her life regretting and trying to atone this mistake.
The first act of the film, set in the picturesque country house, effectively conveys the sweltering heat of the British Summer and the mental unrest that comes with it. The camera never stays still, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey even used Christian Dior stockings over the lenses to portray the heat and its effects on the residents. As Briony starts thinking about what she doesn't understand, trying to write a play of it, Dario Marianelli's haunting score, which features the rhythmic tapping of typewriter keys, reverberates in the background, to continually remind the audience that something bad is about to happen. The dramatic quality of the film is heightened with different events are replayed from different perspectives to show what something has the appearance of being, and what it really is. This device, though not new, works excellently for Atonement.
The second act of the film, set 4 years later, is much grittier and less pretty to watch. Robbie is now a soldier in France, and pines to get back to Cecelia. The horrors of war are not underplayed, and in one excellently-filmed tracking shot, the camera meanders through a chaotic mess of soldiers. Robbie, who had turned out so well before, has not lost practically all of his beauty, and retains only his accent. Similarly, back at home, soldiers with all sorts of disturbing injuries are shown. It is refreshing to see a film that, rather than portraying the war as some sort of patriotic honour, instead shows the horror and suffering that it causes.
In what could only be a nod to David Lean with his country houses, upper middle classes and epic romances, Joe Wright chose for his actors to give performances of the pre-Lee Strasburg era. And the cast rise up to the challenge admirably. As the young Briony, Saoirse Ronan is pitch-perfect, conveying her youthful innocence as well as whiny nosiness. Her sense of knowing about things she clearly doesn't is infuriating, but Ronan prevents us from denouncing her entirely, reminding us that she is, after all, just a child. Keira Knightley, who will be keen to forget her "performance" in her other 2007 venture, Pirates of the Caribbean III, doesn't do anything majorly wrong here, and at times even earns the audience's respect and sympathies as the loyal lover. Romola Garai plays the older, more wise Briony with conviction and a touch of sadness.
But the star of the show is the one, the only, James McAvoy. In the Q&A that followed the screening of the film, director Joe Wright described Robbie as the highest form of a human being, and he is. Even after he is put in the war to avoid staying in prison for longer, he does not whinge about it, but instead, gets through the day with the hope of seeing Cecelia guiding him through. James McAvoy plays this special individual with compassion and understanding. He has the accent and physicality of Robbie down to a T, but, more importantly, conveys his goodness, without ever having to resort to histrionics. McAvoy's performance is a masterclass in subtle acting. In some pivotal scenes, it is actually his beautiful blue eyes that do the acting more than anything, and they speak more words than Briony's ostentatious prose ever could.
There is more than a little similarity between Atonement and The Go-Between. Both tell of love between different classes, and an intruding message carrier between the two. Furthermore, Sarah Greenwood's sensuous set design (in the first act) and accurate war holes (in the second), along with the sound design, which features buzzing bees, works cleverly on a subconscious level to add to the tension. Indeed, Atonement is a technically and visually stunning film. The hues in the first act are almost overly saturated with richness, and this contrasts starkly to the second act, where cold hospital wards and mucky brown war dugouts fill the screen. The costumes are all realistic and accurate, though I personally favour the glamorous designs of the first half, which include a mesmerizing green dress that Cecelia wears. The cinematography, which encompasses long takes, tracking shots, lingering pans all attribute to the visual flair of the movie. But the key stylistic element that stood out for me, was the score. The piano theme is elegiac and melancholy, and the cello and violins also add to the sadness of the romance. Also, the use of a typewriter as an instrument, though started oddly, soon becomes infectious and it even forces its way into viewer's minds, making Robbie's note (and the consequences) unforgettable.
Joe Wright and Working Title have made a film to be proud of. Amidst some incredible scenes (such as an extremely erotic library non-reading session between Robbie and Cecelia). The quality and calibre of films that Working Title have turned out recently have been brilliant (Pride & Prejudice, Hot Fuzz, etc) and Atonement ranks up there along with my personal favourites Dead Man Walking and The Hudsucker Proxy. It is a wonderfully crafted, beautifully lush and immensely moving film that shows, above all, how storytelling can both destroy and heal.
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