I recently watched Atonement again for the first time since I saw it in the theater when it was released in 2007. I’d found it devastatingly powerful the first time I viewed it, and that power was still just as potent nine years after its release.
The movie is based on the award-winning 2001 novel by Ian McEwan. The adaptation by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons, The Quiet American) is remarkably faithful to the book. The one major change is the epilogue to the story, and Hampton improves on the book by making it more suitable for film. The story plays with perceptions and misconceptions, folding back on events to view them from different angles. It’s not exactly the untrustworthy narrator that’s recently gained popularity in books and movies like Gone Girl. If anything, it has some of the blood of Rashomon flowing through its veins.
The first part of the story takes place on a beautiful summer’s day in 1935 at the Tallis country estate in England. The central focus is on the precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis, who wants to be a writer and has prepared a play for her visiting cousins to help her perform after dinner that evening. Briony’s older sister Cecilia is home from Cambridge, as is the housekeeper’s son Robbie, whose way is being paid by the Tallis family. Briony sees what she believes to be an argument take place between Cecilia and Robbie, and later intercepts a note that leads her to believe Robbie is a perverse sex maniac. When Briony’s cousin Lola is attacked that night, Briony denounces Robbie as the attacker and he’s arrested.
The remainder of the film deals with the repercussions from that event. For Robbie they include joining the army as a way out of prison, which finds him in Dunkirk with the retreating British Expeditionary Force in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940. He’d seen Cecilia before he was deployed, and now his focus is to make it back to England for her. Briony is older and wiser now, but testimony against Robbie has caused a complete break with Cecilia. She puts her education on hold to work as a nurse when the war breaks out, though she continues writing. Her great hope, though, is to be reconciled with Cecilia and Robbie.
The excellence of the casting has improved with age. Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy star as the star-crossed lovers. Knightly was well established by this point, having done Bend It Like Beckham five years earlier, followed by Love Actually and Pride and Prejudice. She’d also done the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, finishing it just before Atonement. It likely felt like returning to her roots after the temporary transplant to Hollywood. McAvoy was starting to make a name for himself in films after a decade in British television, including a role in the original English version of “Shameless.” He’d gained notice in 2005’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and then broke out with The Last King of Scotland the next year. There’s a definite, understated chemistry between the two that makes the story work.
The pivotal role is Briony as a child, and here the production lucked out by casting Saoirse Ronan in her first major role. She’s pitch perfect as the too-mature-but-not-mature-enough Briony, and the performance was impressive enough to earn her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She had a couple of missteps on her way to becoming a lead actress with The Lovely Bones and Hanna, two movies that weren’t so much bad as could have been a lot better, and we’ll forget about The Host (as most everyone has by now). With Brooklyn she showed her mature power as a performer, and I look forward to what she will do in the future.
The casting director, Jina Jay, found some excellent actors for supporting roles who’ve continued on giving fine performances. Brenda Blethyn was well known already and had an Oscar nomination for Secrets and Lies. She played Robbie’s servant mother, after having just recently played Kiera Knightly’s mother in Pride and Prejudice. There were three actors who were pretty much unknowns at the time of filming who have gone on to bigger careers. Juno Temple, who played Briony’s cousin Lola, hasn’t made as big a splash as she deserves, despite good work in films such as The Brass Teapot and Horns. A small role as a servant was played by Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones” and was recently in John Wick. But the biggest casting coup was that of candy magnate Paul Marshall, a guess of the Tallises that fateful night, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Atonement was directed by Joe Wright, who’d already worked with Knightly on Pride and Prejudice and would work with both Knightly and Ronan again, on Anna Karenina and Hanna respectively. He carefully moves his camera to capture scenes from different angles, first putting you into Briony’s mind, then changing the view. When Robbie gets to Dunkirk, Wright has his camera flow in one continuous five-minute long take that winds through the confusion and fortitude of the British awaiting rescue on the beach. It’s a tour-de-force shot with a thousand extras that was shot over two days – one day for rehearsal, the other for five takes of which the third was used.
It’s a bit of an injustice that Wright wasn’t nominated for a Best Director Oscar, even though he did received nominations for both the Golden Globes and the BAFTA awards. Atonement received a Best Picture nod, and along with Saoirse Ronan’s nomination the picture received seven. It only won one, for Dario Marianelli’s score that incorporates typewriter strokes like drum beats.
In the novel the epilogue is a 1999 letter from Briony as the author of the piece. Hampton changes it to a television interview with her on the occasion of the book’s publication, her 20th novel. Briony is now played by Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s interviewed by the late writer/director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), who passed away the year after Atonement was released. The brief, memorable scene explains the name of the film, and it will stay with you long after you see this magnificent film.