Joe Wright’s new film, Atonement, is both epic and intimate. On the one hand the film has a sprawling ensemble cast full of Hollywood stars like James McAvoy and Keira Knightly, contains expansive and gorgeous cinematography (complete with an ingenious and astonishing five minute tracking shot), and incorporates complicated and expensive period-focused set design. Yet, at the same time, Wright’s film is contemplative and lyrical, full of visual metaphor and thought provoking characters, not to mention emotional weight.
On the surface the film seems to be a bittersweet love story about two young people who, despite their differences in class, fall for one another but who are torn apart because of an unfortunate misunderstanding. And this is true, but when unpacked, the film proves to be much more than a simple love story: it is a multilayered and complex exploration of the human condition. But, of course, all those layers do, indeed, surround a love story. And in many ways it is quite an old fashioned one at that.
You see, Robbie Turner (McAvoy) is the son of the housekeeper for a wealthy English family who, thanks to the kindness of the family patriarch, worked his way through college and was now back at the family estate. Cecilia Tallis (Knightly), meanwhile, is the daughter of the estate’s proprietor and she too is back from school. Her little sister, Briony (played wonderfully by newcomer Saiorise Ronan), is a spunky and spoiled little girl with a flair for the dramatic and perhaps a little crush on Turner. Unfortunately for Briony, Turner clearly has his eyes set on the elder Miss. Tallis, who seems to be playing a little hard to get.
One day, a bored Briony happens to accidentally catch a glimpse, through a window, of a mysterious encounter between her sister and Turner, an encounter she doesn’t understand. Cecilia seems angry, by the look on her face, but she isn’t yelling at Turner or running away and he is not touching her or talking to her; he is barely looking at her at all. Briony stands at the window, mystified, trying to make sense of it all. Later that night, when she follows them into a darkened library and sees them intimately embracing she understands even less. Wide eyed, she stands completely still, the dim light of a desk lamp her only aid regarding the scandalous behavior of her sister and the working-class young man. She looks on for a long, awkward moment, until finally, her embarrassed sister breaks the silence. Behind a powerful combination of confusion, jealousy, and anger Briony later sets into motion a series of events that forever alter all three of their lives.
When a strange and scandalous crime takes place on the estate young Briony claims to know that Turner is the criminal and on her word he is arrested and sent to prison. His only chance at freedom is to join the army and fight in World War II, so fight he does. The rest of the story chronicles Robbie’s attempts to survive the war, his and Cecilia’s attempts at rebuilding their romance, and Briony’s attempts to atone for her behavior. The film ends with a powerful and moving epilogue that can be taken as either tragic or hopeful, depending on how one views it.
But, Atonement, like all good films, manages to transcend plot and story.
Knightly and McAvoy (as Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis) are excellent as the two lovers. At the beginning they are bright eyed and full of life, passionate, youthful and ready to take the world for themselves. By the end, as their world crumbles around them in the face of lies and treachery and war, they are worn out, lonely, and helpless young adults dreaming only of one day being together again. What makes the characters believable is that the two actors play their characters with amazing restraint; they don’t try to give away emotion by over acting but rather they invite the viewer into their lives and such an invitation is hard to pass up.
Briony is played well by three different actresses. Throughout the first act she is played by remarkable newcomer Saiorise Ronan. Ronan’s Briony perfectly shows her playfulness and creative spirit, but also captures her jealous and disrespectful tendencies. Romola Garai plays the young adult version of Briony and while less memorable then Ronan’s portrayal hers wins sympathy by effectively making Briony guilty and sorrowful for her youthful behavior. A much older version of Briony is played by Vanessa Redgrave whose main accomplishment is in injecting a spirit of elderly regret into the film while at the same time allowing a sage-like wisdom to come across in the film’s final moments. She is both hopeful and hopeless and that paradox permeates the final shots: she hopes that her own hopefulness can change the outcome of what otherwise could be a very sad ending. The story is all in her face.
Indeed, while the plot seems to focus on Robbie and Cecilia’s love, it actually centers around Briony. In her three personas (pre-adolescence, young adulthood, old age) the themes of the film are captured. She is a combination of youthful innocence and jealous spite, of creativity and destruction, and ultimately, of hope and guilt. She is clearly capable of a great deal of good, like all people, but she winds up doing a great deal of damage and spending her life trying to atone for it, like most people. Ultimately, what seems to drive the young Briony’s decisions is a desire to be noticed and to be important.
More proof that the film is meant to be told from the perspective of Briony is in the fact that viewers are constantly forced to question what the truth is. Briony isn’t sure what she really saw, but she knows what wants to have seen and so she accuses Robbie accordingly — and jealously.
Wright’s greatest accomplishment here, though, is in taking these ideas and themes he begins to develop in his characters to an even deeper level through powerful images; what begins as a solid if not great film becomes a superb film in the hands of cinematographers and photographers. Atonement could be watched almost entirely without a single line of dialogue and still be a moving and dramatic film.
The idea of truth and fiction is a major theme in the film and Wright does a good job of making it a visual part of the film. He shows key scenes in the film (mainly things Briony sees) more than once, from differing perspectives thus forcing the audience to pick for themselves which version is truth. Not only does this make the viewer watch the film actively but it also heightens the intensity of the film. Which parts of Briony’s story are true and which are lies? Is Robbie really guilty after all? The film has no intention of giving easy answers.
Wright also uses what appears to be overt symbolism.
In the scene where Briony first sees Cecilia and Robbie together she sees them through a window to which she goes because she hears a bee flying around by the window pane. The camera lingers for some time on the bee, the bright light of a summer’s afternoon shining through the pane, illuminating the golden stripes on the bee’s back and the contrasting sharply with it’s darker colors. Like Briony, the camera seems curious, intrigued by the strange little creature, taken by it’s uniqueness. The bee lingers as well, buzzing by the window as if by a flower. When finally an edit occurs the film cuts to a point-of-view shot, Briony’s point-of-view, of her sister and Robbie together. And so the drama begins.
Without the bee there would have been no drama, no false accusation, no separation, no guilt, and therefore, no atonement necessary (at least for the purposes of this particularly story). The bee perhaps represents fate. It is interesting to note that had the bee not stayed near the window as long as it did Briony would not have witnessed the moment she did and any other moment may have meant a completely different tale.
Another key image, and a much-discussed one too, is the long tracking shot that occurs during the latter half of the film. The shot follows Robbie, now a solider in the British army, as he wonders along the beach at Dunkirk amidst the carnage and horror of war. The shot last about five minutes, apparently contains no computer simulation, and is an utterly astonishing cinematic accomplishment. The camera sweeps gracefully along the beach, capturing a harrowing scene: wounded and bloodied soldiers, many near death, all of them retreating; horses being euthanized; men fist fighting one another; unfinished graves; the beach is pure chaos. That the shot captures all that it does in one long take is remarkable and translates to a powerful metaphor.
As Robbie wanders along the beach amidst the retreating British army he too seems near retreat, he seems ready to surrender, ready to accept that he probably never will be with the woman he loves. He is tired, never so much as when he walks along that beach, chaos surrounding him; at one point the camera drifts away from him and he seems lost in the midst of the sad scene, drowned in the midst of the sorrow around him. This take, and other similarly metaphorical images from the war scenes, might also represent Turner and Cecilia’s disillusionment, despair, and loneliness.
Some have said that this long take is just an example of Wright flexing his creative muscle, and it may be, but the beauty of film is that no matter the reason the camera is first turned on the image is what it is and tells its own story.
When comparing this scene, and other war scenes, with the early scenes at the Tallis’ estate, the shots and images stand in stark contrast to one another. Whereas the war related scenes contain a great deal of subdued, low lighting and long takes, the early scenes contain high key lighting, quick cuts and fast paced editing. Thus whereas the war scenes are meandering and of a melancholy nature the estate scenes are rich with joy and passion and playfulness (though mystery as well).
During the first act Wright and MacGarvey make great use of the natural beauty of Briony and Cecilia’s home. Water plays a metaphorical role in the film, though as something dangerous rather than as something cleansing. When she wants Robbie to notice her Briony jumps into a pond so he will save her and in the end Cecilia comes to her demise by drowning. Also, they show Briony playing and running through the lavish gardens of the estate and there is a sort of other-wordly, mystery about the place. They use a great deal of soft focus photography to make the place seem all that much more like a fairy-tale dream land. In many ways this a dream land, a land where make believe and reality combine to birth the most wonderful visions. Briony is free to be creative and alive and important. Cecilia is allowed to be beautiful and regal and flirtatious. Robbie is allowed to be smart and dashing and in love with the upper class girl. But how quickly the dream ends!
Yes, Atonement is both epic and intimate. It asks epic questions in intimate ways and answers intimate questions in epic ways. It relentlessly pulls at viewers, begging for contradictory sympathies, forcing the audience to make choices, to choose sides, to hope beyond hope that in end all the sides will come together. In the end, sometimes, hope can bring change. Can’t it?
My Grade: 4.5/5
**Note: the film makes great use of soundtrack. The music really captures the emotions of various people at various times. Unlike most other reviewers I decided not to include this in my review: it was long enough already.