In the English summer of 1935, 13-year-old fledgling writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister Cecilia's (Keira Knightley) lover, Robbie (James McAvoy), a servant's son, of a crime he did not commit. The trauma follows them through World War II.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Ian McEwan's Booker-listed novel provides the kind of high value romantic drama as did The English Patient (which won the Booker). This comes to mind as the latter's director, Anthony Minghella plays a small but crucial cameo as a TV book show interviewer. Even the period of Atonement is similar, set just before and during the war (rather than at the end). But Atonement is about a very different kind of betrayal, and Joe Wright (who directed the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice also starring Keira Knightley) has a terrific adaptation to work with. Wright makes good use of cinematic tools to both propel and clarify the story, and he isn't afraid of silences and stillness to punctuate the emotional narrative.
If you've read the novel you'll know the story and if you haven't, it's better to see the film knowing as little as possible. It's a multi layered story in which the characters and their world are as important as the story itself. And the revelation that explains the title is delivered with a naked simplicity that adds to its impact, thanks to Vanessa Redgrave's performance.
Knightley and McAvoy have enough screen chemistry to sell the romance and both Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai as the young and grown up Briony respectively, deliver biting performances - which is just as well since so much rests on their acting shoulders.
Beautifully photographed by Seamus McGarvey, the film looks gorgeous one minute (before the war) and harrowing the next (during the war). Dario Marionelli's score cleverly incorporates the sounds of an old fashioned typewriter at key passages, using it as part of the musical palette, often in increasing intensity. It's a film that stands out from the pack for both its emotional payload and for its superb execution.
Review by Louise Keller:
A young girl with a fertile imagination; an upper class beauty is infatuated by the son of a servant. And so begins a bewitching melodrama full of surprises. There are three sections to Christopher Hampton’s excellent screenplay (adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel), whose jumps in time surprise us throughout its otherwise linear construction. Love, passion, jealousy and consequences are the themes of this enthralling and cinematic film; it is in the first sweeping, establishing act that we meet the key players in an upstairs downstairs 1930 setting of a stately home couched from the rest of the world by its manicured gardens.
Like the allure of the forbidden, the undercurrent of passion between Keira Knightley’s exquisitely dressed upper-class Cecilia and James McAvoy’s likeable Robbie is irresistible. Director Joe Wright offers two indelible images of their impending relationship, and both are witnessed by impressionable thirteen year old Briony (portrayed with great maturity by Saoirse Ronan), through whose eyes the story is told. Briony sees Cecilia plunge into the fountain, retrieve an object and clamber out almost naked – in front of Robbie. Later, Briony walks into the library to be confronted by a sexually explicit scene, which she does not fully understand.
From the picturesque beauty of the first act to wartime in Dunkirk, Wright impresses by his use of a lengthy tracking shot to convey the horrors of war. Briony (now played by Romola Garai) is 18 and even nursing wounded soldiers at the hospital cannot relieve her guilt and regret for past actions. Atonement is the fanciful Briony’s story and it is special casting indeed for Vanessa Redgrave to take over in the final act. The story that begins so frivolously, in elegant surroundings and shimmering long gowns comes to its conclusion with a piercing twist to the heart. It’s a powerful film and one whose images have even greater impact on reflection.
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CAST: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave, Juno Temple, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Minghella
PRODUCER: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster
DIRECTOR: Joe Wright
SCRIPT: Christopher Hampton (novel by Ian McEwan)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Seamus McGarvey
EDITOR: Paul Tothill
MUSIC: Dario Marianelli
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Sarah Greenwood
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2007