Running time 123 minutes
Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Christopher Hampton
Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy
Despite all expectations, 2007 is turning out to be a sorry year for movies. That’s why Atonement has rejuvenated my flagging energy at the very last minute. Elegantly directed by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice), meticulously acted by a perfect cast, immaculately adapted by the great British screenwriter Christopher Hampton and lavishly filmed with a respect for both intimate detail and sweeping narrative, Atonement is everything a true lover of literature and movies could possibly hope for. It is unquestionably, without any reservations, my favorite film of the year.
Based on the critically praised best seller by Ian McEwan, it’s a story of a youthful jealousy that leads to a monstrous falsehood that in turn ruins the lives of a disparate group of people, and ultimate retribution that comes decades too late. On the hottest day of the summer in 1935, just a few years before the war, the wealthy, vacationing Tallis family is expecting guests at their vast country estate. Precocious youngest daughter Briony, a fledgling writer of 13, played by the patrician and deeply sensitive newcomer Saoirse Ronan, is impressionable, sexually naïve and resentful of the attention older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) receives from the boys, especially the hunky gardener Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son, who’s beneath their social station, and whose college education at Cambridge has been financed by their father.
From an upstairs window, Briony watches Cecilia strip off her clothes and lure Robbie into the fountain. Nothing happens beyond a kiss, but Briony’s scheming imagination sets into motion the mischief that will impact their lives forever. When the girls’ older brother Leon (Patrick Kennedy) arrives for the weekend with an arrogant friend who drunkenly assaults a female cousin, Briony falsely identifies the innocent Robbie as the rapist. Convicted and punished for a sex crime, Robbie’s life is ruined. Four years later, he leaves prison and joins the army, but the estranged Cecilia has remained true, and the unjustly separated lovers endure years of grief, desire and emotional tension in the Henry James tradition until they meet in a moving scene set in a terminal cafe right out of Brief Encounter. The repressed Briony, meanwhile, surmounts her own class boundaries by nursing the broken bodies of soldiers in a war-torn hospital, but making amends comes late. Decades later, when she turns the saga into a hugely successful novel for posterity, everyone is relieved that the story had a happy ending. Or did it? In an electrifying finale, offered almost as a postscript, Vanessa Redgrave appears as the dying Briony to publicize her book, still suffering guilt for the damage caused by the deluded fiction of her youth, and reveals the actual facts. Atonement at last? True or false, a writer always has the last word.
The genuinely talented Joe Wright does an engrossing job of turning literature into cinematic poetry. In one magnificently constructed scene after another, he transports us from the idyllic sunlight and chlorophyll of the British countryside darkened by the storm clouds of approaching war, to the blood and chloroform of the trenches in France, the terror in the streets and bomb shelters of London and the galvanizingly surreal nightmare on the beaches of Dunkirk, shot in the perpetual half-light of an abandoned carnival with a bombed carousel in the backdrop. The sets and costumes stagger the imagination. And a uniformly brilliant cast brings three-dimensional humanity to the pages of Christopher Hampton’s script. The impulsive Briony, who sends the wrong man to hell, is played at different stages in her life by two remarkable actresses—Ms. Ronan is a staggeringly assured youngster, and Romola Garai as the mature version of the same tortured character is haunting. They both outclass and upstage the lovely but serenely bland Keira Knightley, who is all cold angles without soft edges. As the wronged man, James McAvoy fulfills the promise he showed in The Last King of Scotland, easily emerging as the film’s star in an honest, heart-rending performance of strength and integrity that overcomes the romantic slush it might have been.
Atonement is both a lyrical adaptation of great fiction and a revelation of the potential power of cinema to twist, mould, convince and entertain. Cynics may dismiss it as a period weepie from the Merchant/Ivory school, but Atonement is so much more than that. The five-minute tracking shot of the carnage at Dunkirk, the rush of water surging through a tube station as people die seeking shelter from the blitz, nurses marching in formation around a hospital as the lights go off, one by one, above them—all indelible images that transform a great book many called “unfilmable” into an overwhelming experience that has revived my faith in motion pictures.