When a film has a title
like Atonement, you're probably not in for an uplifting time at the
However, no one ever said
that film has to be uplifting. Sometimes a tragic film is even more
fascinating than a happy one.
Atonement is, quite
simply, one of the most dazzling, devastating films of the year.
It starts in a place of
quiet opulence and glamour and ends up with three people's happiness being
completely destroyed by the childish act of a thirteen-year-old girl.
And yes, the girl was one of those three undone by the deed — one that she
only partially understood to be wrong at the time. It would not be
until years later that she would truly realize what she had done and she
would spend the rest of her life trying to live it down.
In 1935, on the opulent
British country estate of the Tallis family, young daughter Briony (played
with Oscar-worth intensity by young Saoirse Ronan) is a precocious and happy
little girl who writes and produces her own plays for the family's
amusement. That family includes her upwardly immobile upper-crust
parents, her beautiful and slightly distant sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley)
and several cousins. Also visiting is Robbie Turner (James McAvoy),
the promising son of a servant (Brenda Blethyn) who has just graduated from
It quickly becomes obvious
that Robbie is strongly attracted to Cecilia — an attraction that she only
first notices and reciprocates during an angry moment when he throws a
broken part of a family heirloom into the fountain. She strips off her
dress and dives into the dirty water to retrieve it in only her slip.
We first see this scene
played out from the bedroom window as Briony watches and the encounter seems
a bit angry and violent. Only later, when we are shown the scene from
the point of view of the two involved, do we realize that the experience was
shyly flirtatious as they both realize the effect she is having on him.
This is one of several
examples in the film of how various people see the same acts in completely
different ways, dependent on where they were and the emotional baggage they
bring to the proceeding.
Briony, not understanding
the feelings of the couple — and harboring a bit of a crush on Robbie
herself — is cut to the quick by this apparently seamy encounter.
Then when Briony reads a pornographic note that Robbie wrote for Cecilia
(with no intention of Cecilia reading) the words... well, one specific
word... feel like a slap in the face to the little girl. When she
walks in on the couple's shy consummation of their passion, wheels go into
motion and none of the three will ever recover.
Later, when her young
cousin is found by Briony being attacked by a man, Briony tells a lie —
though the movie never totally states whether she realizes it to be a lie or
if she truly believes in her immature way that she is right — that Robbie
was the attacker.
This move sends Robbie to
jail for several years and the only way he can be released is to fight in
World War II. Cecilia becomes estranged from her family — and most
specifically from her little sister — becoming a nurse treating injured
soldiers. Briony, eventually realizing all the damage her rash
accusation caused, also becomes a war nurse, trying desperately to make up
for her past act.
This is McAvoy's show - Knightley's role is mostly
supporting here. Supporting in size not stature, mind you; Knightley's
character work is the most searing she has done yet on film, but the story
really is more about her lover and her sister.
McAvoy smolders with
dramatic tension. Tragic, but resigned to his fate and buoyed by the
promise of true love, he makes Robbie Turner come to tragic life with
longing and barely checked rage. One scene, a five-minute-long
steadicam tracking shot of Turner and fellow soldiers walking through the
devastating horror of wounded British soldiers awaiting rescue in Dunkirk,
is as fine a piece of direction, camera-work and acting as has appeared on
film this year.
Briony — played at
different points in her life by the astonishing Ronan and a just about as
good Romola Garai — takes a different road to get to much the same place.
As she tries, with limited success, to undo what she had done, you see how
her entire life had been completely tied to this childhood-killing moment
and she will never totally be past it.
By the time that the great
Vanessa Redgrave appears in the end — in a cameo as an aged Briony looking
back on the whole experience as a novelist finally taking on her most
painful memory — we are given one last stark demonstration in the
difference between appearances and reality.
Perhaps she is even correct
when she suggests that sometimes a bit of artistic fantasy is preferable,
because the real can just be too hard to take.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: December 6, 2007.