Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Christopher Hampton
Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave
Seeing things from the outsider’s point of view can create misinterpretations of what reality bears. That continued sequence of misunderstandings creates irrevocable events that will impact all of the characters within this beautifully moving and emotionally captivating feature film. It’s through those emotional breakthroughs that Atonement reveals itself to be a sensational triumph.
Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) may live in close proximity but they come from different worlds. Their attraction for each other does not entirely make sense to Cecilia’s sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan). Each time Briony sees them interacting, what may seem as harsh action of Robbie towards Cecilia, are actually loving moments. With that, Briony accuses Robbie of a crime he did not commit, which changes the course of all of their lives.
A film like Atonement tells a story that flows well, but it’s not until the very end that it hits you like a ton of bricks. It provides an emotional release that ensures that the audience understands the entire purpose of the story. The ending will certainly not be revealed in the review, but it may go down as one of my favorite conclusions because it makes complete sense even with it being heartbreaking. Everything else that precedes demonstrates strong storytelling with some incredible visual flair and strong performances from its cast.
The best of the performance unsurprisingly came from Keira Knightley as she refuses to give up the crown of being the queen of period pieces. Her work as Cecilia requires grace and strength, which Knightley can provide in her sleep. She pairs incredibly well with James McAvoy in creating a romance that had plenty of promise but ultimately did not get the chance to bloom. It’s the type of romantic connection that makes novels wonderful fantasies to enter. A woman from a wealthy family and a man whose family works for her. Different social classes but a love that binds them. It tragically gets cut short.
Atonement, ultimately, becomes a tragedy for every character involved as they all fight off the trauma of the inciting night. Cecilia decides to serve in the war as a nurse and Robbie gets the choice to continue to be in jail or serve in combat. Even though the pain of a love that could have brought them together, the pain of regret follows Briony for the rest of her life. The film shows how she grows up and learns about the error in her childhood thinking. She slowly pieces together every moment she recalled of that day and how every interpretation ended up being dreadfully wrong. Briony must deal with this regret and it haunts her for the rest of her life.
As Briony aged, she was portrayed by different actors but the youngest and strongest performance came from the tremendous Saoirse Ronan. Even when just a young child, Ronan delivered such rich performances and navigated a character that would be easy to hate if not for her being a child. All of the events Briony saw as a child are things that a child understandably would not fully comprehend. Whether it be the letter that she should not have read that Robbie asks her to deliver to Cecilia or mistakenly misinterpreting the interactions of the couple. She had a very limited perspective of what occurred and like any child, her imagination ran wild with trying to fill in the blanks. It also comes from a young girl with a broken heart as she sees someone she crushes on, Robbie seems to be committing some heinous acts. This ultimate combination leads to the sequence of events and all of the characters have to live with the new path of their lives.
Visually, this film features some breathtaking moments. One includes when Cecilia looks for parts of a broken vase within a fountain or the beautiful green dress she wears. That look borders on iconic when I think of the different outfits Knightley has sported in her career. It looks so stark and stands out amongst all of the other characters. Then it gets to the war sequences where Robbie simply tries to survive and get back home. One particular tracking shot through the beaches of Dunkirk shows the destruction and human cost of the war and a fate that could easily be his if he unluckily has a bomb dropped on him. That shot continued and I got more and more impressed as it continued.
Even with the tragedy that surrounds the plot of Atonement, the story shows the beauty of life and what could have been without the deadly misunderstanding that occurs. Briony’s redemption comes in a way she hoped would be different, but the progression shows someone who learned from her mistakes and showing the weight of her decisionmaking on the people she claimed to care for. It’s one of the great period dramas of the 2000s and one that continues to dazzle on rewatches.