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  • Post last modified:September 2, 2020

Atonement: The Sins of Childhood


Walking into the press screening of director Joe Wright’s latest effort, and not having read Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel, I had no idea what to expect. I thought the film might be something along the lines of his last movie, Pride & Prejudice (2005), which also starred Keira Knightley. As I watched Atonement unfold, I was somewhat plagued by hunger, headache and a need to visit a bathroom, but all those worries vanished as I realized that Wright had possibly become one of the great filmmakers of our time.

A 13-year-old finishes her play
The film begins in 1935 in the English countryside. 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), the youngest daughter in a well-to-do family, has just finished her first play; that’s the first step of a future, successful career as a writer. One day she witnesses an encounter between her older sister Cecilia (Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son. Briony doesn’t really know what’s going on between them, she’s too far away to hear what they’re saying, but finds the event somewhat disturbing. There is a history between Cecilia and Robbie (as well as an attraction), even though Cecilia’s done her best to avoid the issue. After the encounter, Robbie writes Cecilia a letter where he tries to explain things and apologizes. However, he grabs the wrong note by accident, one he just wrote as a joke that says “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt”, puts it in an envelope and sends Briony to Cecilia as a messenger. Briony reads the note, is once again shocked and hands it over to Cecilia. Robbie realizes what he’s done, is horrified and heads over to the Tallis’. There he finds Cecilia, who is actually turned on by Robbie’s letter; the couple starts having sex in the library… only to be caught by Briony.

That becomes a key part of a series of events that will land Robbie in prison, doom his relationship with Cecilia, and cause Briony to seek atonement for the rest of her life.

The music as a vivid part of the experience
McEwan must have written one hell of a novel, that much is clear. Watching this movie, one can’t help but admire the way he has put everything together, how metafiction becomes a final twist where Briony is allowed some sort of redemption. I won’t reveal what goes on in the final act, other than to say that it is absolutely ingenious and heartbreaking.
It can’t hurt that renowned playwright Christopher Hampton adapted the novel, another layer of excellence to the story.

The thing about this movie is that it is far more than just a straightforward filmization of a brilliant novel. Director Wright makes great use of his own medium as well. Together with composer Dario Marianelli he makes constant efforts to connect the score with events and details in the film, making the music a vivid part of the experience. And then there’s the astonishing tracking shot. Lasting for approximately five minutes, the camera moves along chaotic beaches during the 1940 “miracle of Dunkirk” and captures many memorable sightings; I can’t even begin to imagine the work behind creating such an ambitious sequence.

Perhaps it is the filmmakers who make their performances look even better, but the actors seduce us; Knightley and McAvoy are perfect as the lovers and their scene in the library is so passionate and tender that it deserves a place in cinema history. Briony is portrayed by three actresses at different ages and they’re all brilliant; it is up to Vanessa Redgrave to deliver that final, agonizing twist.

I left the theater with tears in my eyes. Not everybody loved this movie, but to me this was a masterpiece and once again the winter world outside just seemed a little too gray and depressing. Atonement may be a tragedy, but still a ray of light.

Atonement 2007-Britain-U.S. 123 min. Color. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster. Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay: Christopher Hampton. Novel: Ian McEwan. Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey. Music: Dario Marianelli. Production Design: Sarah Greenwood. Cast: James McAvoy (Robbie Turner), Keira Knightley (Cecilia Tallis), Romola Garai (Briony Tallis, 18), Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn… Juno Temple, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Minghella.

Trivia: Knightley was reportedly first considered for the part of Briony; Kristin Scott Thomas for another part.

Oscar: Best Original Score. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Original Score. BAFTA: Best Film, Production Design.

Last word: “It started off as a bit of a joke really. I had a problem which was that I only had one day with all of those extras, and we couldn’t afford any more, and the sequence was originally written as a montage and I wasn’t sure how I was going to cover that amount of shots in a single day and have continuity of light and ‘magic light’ and all that kind of stuff, so one day in discussion with Seamus [McGarvey], I sort of jokingly said, ‘Why don’t we do it as a single Steadicam shot’ and everyone laughed. ‘Ha ha ha, what a wag!’ and then I went home that night and started thinking about it, and asking myself the question quite seriously. I reread the passage from the book and it’s a really lyrical passage, so it seemed like the right way to do it, so the next day I went in and told them and they stopped laughing.” (Wright on the “miracle of Dunkirk” sequence, ComingSoon.net)



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