A strong script, some fine acting, and some very assured directing from Joe Wright make up a very watchable film. Atonement is an interesting dissection of a theme, and proves to be a mature and confident cinematic treat.
In 1935, 13-year-old Briony misconstrues a flirtation between her older sister Cecilia (Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son Robbie (MacAvoy). When her cousin gets raped, Briony lays the blame on poor Robbie. He gets sent off to prison just as World War II erupts, and the consequences of Briony’s actions haunt the characters’ lives throughout the conflict.
Keira Knightley, often mocked for her lantern jaw and posh-toff accent, can be just right, depending on the role. Here she shines as Cecilia. It’s her second film with Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright, who brings out polished performances in every member of his cast. Standing head and shoulders above the rest is the mighty James MacAvoy, portraying a real man who works hard in the gardens but scrubs up well for dinner with the mannered cognoscenti.
Nothing compares to an English summer. The first third of the film takes place in and around the stately home where Cecilia has grown up. The glowing cinematography conveys the heat of the day while the soundtrack features a fly buzzing around hitting the windows of the house. It really feels hot, and it’s a relief when the characters jump into the pools or the lake to cool off. Perhaps hotter is the love scene between Knightley and MacAvoy. It’s one of the most erotic moments in recent cinematic memory, yet simply comprised of close-ups and ragged breathing.
The initial warmth of the picture (Perhaps the film’s strongest section) soon cools as the characters are separated. The bleak shadow of WWII creeps in. From then on, the film takes place either at night or in overcast landscapes – French swamps or grimy cities.
Tonally, the film is spot on. The action, landscapes and colour palette mirror the characters’ emotional states. If the whole affair feels a bit novelistic (it is, after all, an adaptation), a surprising final coda reveals that this is entirely the point. By then an oppressive feeling of regret has enshrouded the picture, as Briony’s need to atone for the sins of her past has become painfully clear.
But before this reviewer gets swept away in self-concious literate ramblings, it should be pointed out that Atonement can sometimes be a bit flowery for the casual movie-goer. Robbie keeps hearing Cecilia’s voice echoing inside his head: “Come back to me. Come back to me.” At times this is like a flashback to Titanic’s “I’ll never let go, Jack.” The war-time scenes can also look a bit cheap and very easy on the blood & gore factor. It looks like the filmmakers have rented a disused London factory at night, set up some bright lights and a smoke machine.
The crowning moment of the film is the very long (did someone say five-minutes?) tracking shot which follows Robbie along the beach-front at Dunkirk. It’s very impressive, if a little showy. And it perhaps sums up the entire film – theatrical but made with care. Much thought has gone into making this flick, and it proves to be a wonderful meditation on a theme that will sit with you for days afterwards.