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atonement Atonement
Directed by:
Joe Wright
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Ailidh Mackay, Brenda Blethyn, Julia West, Keira Knightley

Written by:
Joanne Ross

February 5, 2008

Robbie Turner: I'm sorry, you weren't meant to see that. It was the wrong version.
Cecilia Tallis: What was in the right one?


Here’s a recipe for disaster:

  • An idyllic afternoon at an English country estate in 1935.
  • A hyperimaginative 13-year-old girl with the tragic habit of being in places and seeing things she shouldn’t be in or see.
  • A curious incident by the water fountain.
  • An explicit love letter falling into the hands of this same young girl.
  • Desire between a well-to-do young woman and the son of a household servant.
  • The rape of a 15-year-old girl.
  • A terrible lie.

Mix it all together and you have what spells the beginning of the end for the two protagonists, childhood friends Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) in Atonement, based on Ian McEwan’s novel and directed by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice).

Not since The Children’s Hour, have we seen the terrible consequences brought on by a child’s lie.
A love story, Atonement asks, “Can a person truly atone for a wrong perpetrated against another human being?” It is also a meditation on the power of words and the nature of writing and storytelling—the idea that inspires, the story, the embellishment, the editing, and what can happen if the final, “wrong version” of the story is “published”. There's a good reason why we hear the relentless clack, clack, clack of typewriter keys in the soundtrack.

In 1935 England, on a hot summer day at the country estate of the Tallis family, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) has written a play--the melodramatic sounding The Trials of Arabella--she hopes to perform in honor of the return of her much loved older brother Leon (Patrick Kennedy) who is arriving that afternoon. She recruits her reluctant cousins, the Quinceys--Jackson, Pierrot, and Lola--to play the parts. Briony loses the starring role to 15-year-old Lola who insists she play the part instead.

Meanwhile, Briony’s mother, Emily (Harriet Walter) is lying in bed with a migraine; her restless older sister Cecelia is gathering flowers between puffs of cigarettes while generally skirting Robbie Turner, who is landscaping the grounds. Between them, desire and love simmers just beneath the surface, but neither is prepared to admit to it—yet. And Leon arrives with a friend in tow, the smarmy Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch). The stage is set and the actors are in place for the drama that is about to unfold.

The idyllic day ends tragically when Briony stumbles upon someone attacking Lola. Briony is convinced she’s seen (knows?) who did it—Robbie. Frustrated by her attempts to mount her own play and having lost the lead role to Lola, Briony now finds herself cast as the leading lady in a new, more significant play--as the character who saves the victim of a crime, fingers her assailant, and brings him to justice.

The second part of Atonement takes place four years later during WWII. Robbie is in France, a soldier in the British army and part of the forces sent in to aid the French against the Germans. Robbie, wounded with a hole in his chest, and two of his comrades, head toward the beach at Dunkirk. He dreams of returning home to England and to Cecelia with whom he reunited six months earlier.

Finally, we get Briony’s story. Now 18, and serving as a nurse in London, she comes to terms with the enormity of what she did. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot so as not to give away the rest of the story.
Atonement is a beautifully realized masterpiece—visually, directorially, dramatically—with an intelligent and sensitive script, courtesy of Christopher Hampton. The cinematography is breathtaking, particularly the five-minute-long tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk, an amazing feat of skillful logistics and choreography. I shudder to think of the planning that went into setting up that one shot.

In the acting department, top marks go to Ronan as the 13-year-old Briony. The character is a force, and Ronan captures her relentless drive, determination, imagination, and unquenchable need to be everywhere and know everything.

I did find some problems with Atonement. The first is the pairing of James McAvoy and Keira Knightley in the lead roles. To her credit, Knightly delivers a strong performance, and captures Cecilia’s restlessness and anxiety. McEvoy is equally strong. What is lacking is chemistry which would have made them more heartbreaking as tragic lovers separated by a lie. Even the much talked about sex scene, which was filmed with sensitivity and an eye to preserving the intimacy of such an act by director Wright, wasn’t as moving as I had thought it would be. Knightly who is undeniably beautiful and hauntingly lovely, oddly doesn’t have much sex appeal, and so, she often comes across as remote or chilly.  Many critics went on and on about the “blazing hot” chemistry between these two actors. Frankly, I didn’t feel the heat.

Romola Garai, as Briony at 18, was a bit too bland and expressionless for my taste, and didn’t convince me of someone suffering from remorse and guilt.

My final criticism concerns the ending of the film, in which we again meet Briony, this time as an older woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave. I can’t comment on what I feel is wrong with it without spoiling everything. However, I will say this. I recently read another viewer’s alternative take on the ending. If what that viewer said is indeed what the director intended—and it certainly makes sense to me—then I withdraw my criticism and applaud the director for the way in which he wrapped things up. Watch it, and decide for yourself.
We all know of the power of words—written and spoken—to create worlds. Consider the bible: “In the beginning, there was the Word . . .”, and God, by speaking, created an entire universe in 6 days. However, just as words can create, so, too, can they tear down. You don’t have to be God. In Atonement, we are reminded that a few simple words spoken with conviction by a foolish and misguided child falsely accusing an innocent man of wrong doing--“I know it was him.” “Yes, I saw him.”—are powerful enough to destroy a life. Words, once spoken, can never be called back. *****


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atonement Atonement
Directed by:
Joe Wright
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Ailidh Mackay, Brenda Blethyn, Julia West, Keira Knightley

Written by:
Alex Mizuno

February 18, 2008


As Joanne Ross says, "Atonement" is a beautifully realized masterpiece. And it is a rich film. Rich in many ways. In its visual style, layers of the story and in its message. Visually, it has reminiscence of Merchant - Ivory films, especially in the first half of the film. Old upper class English life with full of pastoral images filmed in soft focus - but it takes a dark turn. It's this dark turn that makes this film totally unique.

Its editing style is superb. The moment heroin Cecilia dives into the lake, her lover Robbie rises in the bath tab. The water is used as a symbol of eroticism here. The first water we see is the fountain where Cecilia jumps in to find a broken piece of a vase. When she comes out of the fountain and stands in her wet undergarment like Venus, Robbie is transfixed. I don't blame him. This is where I disagree with Joanne. Keira Knightley has nothing but sex appeal in this scene. And this scene becomes a prelude to the later steamy sex scene.

On the other hand, the editing style of this film can be extremely confusing to unprepared audience. First, we follow the story through the eye of 13 years old Briony. Suddenly, the time is rewound and we see the "right" version of the story. Unlike Kurosawa's "Rashomon."
It doesn't seem clear to the audience at first to figure whose vision is being presented. As the story progresses, the audience gradually notices the "right" version is the vision of the "story teller."

However, there is a similarity to "Rashomon." After showing the various versions of the same incident, the film "Rashomon" tells us "you must not tell a lie." The moral presented in "Atonement" is quite similar. "Lie is a sin."

I was surprised to see great Vanessa Redgrave at the end. To me, she is outstanding as aged Briony. I wish I knew Joanne's criticism about this last scene. Also, I wish I knew what the alternative take is.