Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Christopher Hampton
Cast: Keira Knightly, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch
Release date: December 7, 2007
Atonement is the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel directed by Joe Wright. Briony Tallis is a precocious young girl who likes to write and tell stories. Due to a series of misunderstandings, she ends up impacting the lives of her sister, Cecilia Tallis, and Robbie Turner, the son of the housekeeper. Cecila and Robbie, despite coming from different backgrounds, have deep seated feelings for each other. After a horrific accusation ends up tearing apart their future and lives, the film looks at what happens to the three characters and how their lives changed because of it.
This is the first Joe Wright movie I have seen, and while not without hiccups, it is an impressive work.
As an adaptation, Atonement is spectacular. Aside from cutting scenes for time, the film is as good a translation of the novel to the big screen as there can be. Some conversations are even taken verbatim from the pages of the book. The hot summer day, the chaos at Dunkirk, and the sterile hospital described in the novel are recreated visually to an amazing degree.
I have nothing bad to say about this movie’s direction. Joe Wright’s filmmaking abilities cannot be disputed. He frames every shot exactly as it needs to be framed, making them either intimate or epic and overpowering depending on the scene. No matter where a scene is taking place, Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey make every one of them beautiful. What better proof of this is there than the famous long tracking shot of the chaotic evacuation of Dunkirk? The editing is also great, recreating how the novel used differing perspectives to tell its story.
Of course, Atonement can’t just get on by a great look alone. It needs to have what the book did: an emotional and heady plot with interesting characters. Being a faithful adaptation of great source material, the movie would have at least some of the original’s strengths by accident or design. Luckily, Christopher Hampton’s screenplay manages to capture most of the novel’s strengths and gives a very good distillation of the original’s plot and themes. Briony Tallis, Cecilia Tallis, and Robbie Turner are some of the most memorable characters that I have had the pleasure of seeing grow and change. Briony especially, is a dynamic character that radically changes from the person we first see her as. No character is given the short stick and everyone has their moment. We see the effects of what an overactive imagination can have, and how damaging biases can be. Joe Wright uses the techniques of filmmaking to connect with the theme of how an event can be perceived differently by others depending on perspective. A scene will be shown twice, from one perspective, then another. As with the novel, it contains an ending that will completely shock and sadden you, and recontexualize the majority of what you have just watched.
Atonement boasts an outstanding cast that give memorable and believable performances. Saoirse Ronan was a perfect choice as young Briony, delivering what might be the best performance in the whole film, and one of the best child performances there is. Keira Knightly is of course, also quite good as Cecilia Tallis, and Ian McAvoy is another case of bullseye casting as Robbie Turner. The two have amazing chemistry together. A performance that I think has gone under the radar is Benedict Cumberbatch’s. It is a small but impactful role that is unforgettable and disturbing. He plays a charming and superficially likable character, but there is always an undercurrent of creepiness and a predatory nature whenever he appears. It’s a disturbing portrayal of a sexual predator.
I would be remiss not to mention the film’s score and usage of sound. Atonement has a beautiful score, one of the most relaxing and sad I have ever heard from Dario Marianelli. Lastly, the film creatively uses a typewriting sound effect during pivotal scenes, involving Briony. It flawlessly mixes in with the music, and is another case of the medium’s strengths being used to work with the material’s themes of how destructive flawed perspectives can be.
Sadly, Atonement is not perfect or even great, as a film or as an adaptation. While it is as faithful an adaptation of the novel as it can be, some aspects don’t translate well into film. Conversations and bits of dialogue that sounded good on the page sometimes sound stilted and unnatural when spoken by actual people. Which is odd because McEwan’s dialogue in the book is very good and is a pretty accurate representation of how people of that period would talk. It’s the delivery that is the issue. The third act is the weakest section of the film, which depicts Briony all grown up as a nurse during World War II. It’s shorter compared to the other sections in the film and there isn’t enough time spent with her in this stage in her life. The most memorable scene is when she finally meets Robbie and Cecilia again for the first time in years. The word “undercooked” comes to mind when talking about this section of the movie. The first act is the strongest and most consistent of the film, while the other two acts are not quite able to reach the high standard set by it.
Atonement is a very good albeit flawed movie. It does fumble the longer it goes on, but it is elevated by great performances, directing, cinematography, music, and characters. The movie has a lot of ambition, and its faults can be traced back to trying to do too much. That is something I wish I could say for more films. Despite it’s flaws, Atonement is well crafted, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally engaging. Give it a watch.