Film Review: Atonement

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(Atonement, Joe Wright, UK & France, 2007, 123 mins)

Based on the 2001 novel by British author Ian McEwan, the audience meet Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) at aged thirteen, who has a writer’s vivid imagination and the young, innocent mind of a girl in 1930’s England. It is through her eyes that we witness, often more than once, the scandalous and misinterpreted blossoming of a romance between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the son of the family’s groundkeeper, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) who dreams of going to medical school. It is Briony who destroys Robbie’s hopes, as she falsely accuses him of a crime he did not commit; naively believing that it was the right decision. Director Joe Wright has used a repetitive technique to confront previous scenes from new perspectives; first from Briony’s, and then from her sister’s. This narrative structure is what makes this film complex for the audience, not only in its class and social issues, but how the audience must grasp and understand the wheels turning in Briony’s mind, as she observes situations that without closer detail are misunderstood.

This role for Ronan is enormous, and she performs remarkably, with an intimidating essence about her, her posture so straight and movements through the house so precise, and she is almost ghostly with her wide and curious eyes. Dario Marianelli’s score, which won an Oscar for Best Original Score at the 80th Academy Awards, often expresses what the dialogue cannot, particularly at the beginning as Briony paces around so quickly to the sound of her type righter, a noise which can be heard at numerous points throughout Atonement, emphasising the power she has over her family by revealing her sister’s secret, which has fatal consequences. Wright has considered detail so thoroughly; the audience must pay close attention to particular scenes which hold certain clues to the use of props, a secret letter, an expensive vase, Cecilia’s hair clip. These items create anxiety for an audience who can most likely predict what will devastatingly happen before the scene has even been retold.  Wright also highlights the use of hands, whether it is a small gesture under the table, or an older Briony scrubbing at her hands as a suggestion of destroying the guilt she feels.

The plot is split into two parts, and the character of Briony has three actresses who play her growing self; Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai at eighteen, and finally Vanessa Redgrave as a Briony coping with vascular dementia as an old woman. Again, the attention to detail is haunting, as Wright has made sure that her features remain the same, her hair, the blueness of her eyes, and right down to the mole on her right cheek. The transition from teen to woman depicts her regret over the deceit that she caused, which she tries to rectify through her dedication to train as a nurse. However, it is only at the end of the film, when Wright closes in on Redgrave’s troubled face as a successful author, that the audience actually feel sympathy towards her. It feels as though it is only Ronan who does her role justice, as she superbly shows Briony’s need for commotion, and how gradually she must take on responsibility and deal with the trauma of healing the wounded from the war.

Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is beautiful and compliments the more disheartening moments of the film, specifically when Robbie is on the beach at Dunkirk in a morbid World War Two. There is a memorable tracking shot of the beach as we follow Robbie, over numerous soldiers, struggling, waiting or getting drunk. The use of reflections is also effective, allowing a variety of shots as opposed to simple point-of-view shots, particularly as Briony looks on at a moment between the couple by the fountain, her eyes squinting through the window, and later on as Robbie traipses through fields, and overhead planes are visible through the river flowing next to them. The passage of time is most obvious through the lighting, as McGarvey takes us from the sunny and stunning countryside of their period home, to the murky skies of a struggling Britain a few years later. The smoke and red lights of the police car that comes to collect Robbie from the Tallis’ home conveys a diminishing passion as he is taken away from the house as Cecilia looks on and says “Come back to me”, a line which is repeated several times throughout, every time holding a different connotation.

Keira Knightley’s performance as Cecilia was as expected, emotionally gripping. Her experience with period dramas (Wright’s previous film Pride and Prejudice from 2005 and The Duchess in 2008) both comment on her ability to work as a true British actress. She does well to express her negative feelings towards her younger sister, even as they grow older, her strong facial features and challenging stare promote that she was made to play an upper class superior.

Questions are left unanswered, and the narrative plays a climactic trick on us, meaning that our expectations are not fulfilled. The audience never know if her family find out the truth, nor can we see the Briony who actually realises her mistake, and instead the film jumps to her older self still trying to justify her actions. But perhaps this isn’t a bad thing; Atonement is open to interpretation on many levels, perhaps it is not just Briony, but all of us, who are susceptible to a false impression.

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