“Atonement”, based on the book by Ian McEwan, reteams Keira Knightley with her “Pride and Prejudice” director Joe Wright. They have created a masterfully crafted look at a romance interrupted by events beyond the couple’s control.
In the mid 30s, a hot summer leads everyone at a country house in the English countryside to become antsy. Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious 13 year old, decides to write another play; she will perform it for the assembled houseguests with the help of her cousins and everyone is sure to love it and think she is just brilliant. Her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley) finds it difficult to deal with her growing attraction to Robbie (James McAvoy), the caretaker’s son. They flirt and challenge each other to show their true affections. But Briony also has a schoolgirl crush on Robbie, and naturally, she doesn’t understand all of these feelings or what she sees her older sister experiencing. Invited to dinner, Robbie writes Cecilia a letter and asks Briony to deliver it. He soon realizes he gave her a more explicit letter and yells for her to return. He tries to talk to Cecilia about it, but they give in to their carnal needs. Briony walks in and mistakes what they are doing. One thing leads to another and Robbie ends up in jail (there is a lot of stuff going on, I’ve only scratched the surface). When World War II begins, he is given the opportunity to join the army to get out of jail, and he is off to the battlefields of France. There, he pines over the letters he receives from Cecilia, who has disowned her family, and her sister, and works as a nurse. Briony (Romola Garai), now a young lady, has also become a nurse and desperately wants to right what she now realizes was a mistake.
Directed by Joe Wright, “Atonement” is a great piece of romantic filmmaking.
We initially meet Cecilia and Robbie, as they deal with the restrictions of their respective class standing in the way of their romance. Everyone has to be very proper, so they are unable to express their emotions. Then, frustrated by the constant flirting, Robbie writes a letter to Cecilia. But he is unable to come up with the right wording, the proper wording. Because of his inability to express his feelings, he writes an explicit letter, laughs and then writes another letter, a proper letter, but he mistakenly gives the wrong letter to Briony to deliver to Cecilia. Briony is also attracted to the young man, so she sneaks a look at the letter and is shocked. All of this works so well because Wright and his screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, have perfectly captured McEwen’s portrait of these rich folks who are languishing in the summer heat, bored and randy, letting their feelings overtake their better morals and better judgment.
Briony is a precocious kid and we first meet her after she has finished a new play. Naturally, she has her mother and Cecilia read it, both of whom give their blessings. Then she ropes her cousins, twin boys and their older sister, into agreeing to perform it. But when the older cousin, who is a few years older than Briony, starts to try to take over, Briony gets frustrated. This is her play and she must be in control. Later, Briony’s lack of control also helps to explain her actions as they spiral out of control, becoming more severe and damaging.
Throughout the first half of the film, Robbie and Cecilia are clearly attracted to each other. Yet, because Robbie is the son of the family’s caretaker, they are unable to express their desire. When Cecilia makes a mean comment about Robbie owing her father a lot of money for his schooling, we realize this is the same behavior two school children exhibit when they are interested in one another and unable to show it.
Keira Knightley does a very good job of portraying Cecilia’s frustrations. At one point, she lays on dock next to the lake, in a swimming suit. You can almost see the heat rising off of her body. So, when she and Robbie flirt, and they have a little tussle, she dives into the fountain to retrieve a broken piece of pottery, only to emerge in a drenched dress. Of course, this does nothing to assuage Robbie’s desire and you have to think Cecilia is probably glad of the result. As Robbie and Cecilia dance around their feelings, Knightley brings a lot of complexity to the role. She argues with Robbie, she longs for him, she wants to hold him, but she can’t. All of this is perfectly portrayed by the actress.
When she receives the wrong letter from Robbie, she knows Briony has read it, but doesn’t care. When he shows up for dinner, in evening dress, she leads him into the dark library ready to show him her true emotions. But Briony walks in and interrupts. She is shocked by what she sees.
James McAvoy plays Robbie, the caretaker’s (Brenda Blethyn) son. He knows there is a barrier between he and Cecilia and this only serves to make him all the more frustrated. When she suddenly appears out of the fountain, he is shocked, but seems more shocked because he would love to grab her and ravage her. But he can’t do that. This all leads to the letter. Like Cecilia, he is very frustrated and the heat isn’t helping.
The pair are extremely convincing and work well together. You can see the longing in their eyes as they yearn to touch each other.
When the war hits, we watch as Robbie deals with life in the war-torn French countryside. He covets the letters Cecilia has sent to him and counts the days until he can return to England on leave and see her. Like many woman, Cecilia has become a nurse and tries to help out where she can. More interestingly, she has also disowned her family and lives in a small apartment in the middle of London. When they do reunite, it is an awkward moment, because he has been scarred by war and can’t open up to her immediately. But she places her hands on his and all is well again.
Briony, now a young woman, has been thinking about the events of that summer evening many years before. She realizes she mistook or misunderstood some things, and wants to make amends. She also realizes she has interrupted her older sister’s romance and wants to set things right, but Cecilia will have nothing to do with her.
One of the most striking things about “Atonement” is, strangely enough, the sound design of the film. As the film opens, we hear a typewriter clacking away and then watch as Briony finishes her play. But this same sound becomes almost a background noise through much of the film. At various points, we watch a character’s actions through a certain point and then the typewriter sound becomes louder and the action shifts back a bit, and we watch the same events from a slightly different viewpoint. As Briony is presumably writing this, at some point in her life, it is fascinating to see the different viewpoints presented, almost as Briony seems to realize her mistakes. The typewriter sound blends into the music, adding a nice underscore to the melodic background.
The typewriter and Briony’s reexamining various events leads up the emotional, gut wrenching climax of the film. I defy you to not use the hanky you will wisely have in your hand, waiting for this very moment.
“Atonement” is a very good film, very romantic, and sure to bring a large number of people to tears. It is superbly made and you never once feel like you are watching something that hasn’t happened. What more could you want from an Awards contender?