Movie Review: Atonement (2007)

Director: Joe Wright

Midway through Atonement, Robbie Turner, a young British World War II soldier played by James McAvoy stumbles into a French theatre desperately searching for a drop of water when he notices an exquisite black and white love scene flickering above him on the screen. Although he doesn’t speak French, cinema is a sensory language comprised not only of sound but of visuals and their effect on viewers. And McAvoy is as taken in by what he’s seen as are we while audience and character both remember his love back home in England—the love from whom he was torn by a false criminal accusation and the love who continually professes in her letters that she will wait for him.

Screened moments like this send shivers down my spine and remind me once again of my passion for the medium— a moment so delicate and subtle that I was as mesmerized as the soldier onscreen and nearly forgot that just minutes earlier I’d been overwhelmed by yet another dazzling sequence and one of the most audacious in recent memory as the same young man along with two other soldiers wander the soldier filled beach at Dunkirk for four and a half minutes in a single shot. Of course, once I’d collected myself after leaving the theatre, I realized I was forgetting dozens of pitch perfect moments, shots, sounds or scenes that occurred both before and after the halfway point and realized that Atonement is simply one of those movies that can make a believer out of even the most apathetic and frustrated audience member in the power of film as an art form.

Like the critically acclaimed bestselling novel Atonement by Ian McEwan upon which Christopher Hampton’s screenplay is based, the film by Joe Wright seems to be divided into three distinct parts with an epilogue included as a conclusion. While it’s always difficult to take a highly literary and beloved novel and distill it into a screenplay, everything about this adaptation falls solidly into place and manages to capture both the textual essence and ever so important subtext of McEwan’s gorgeous prose into one of the most breathtakingly perfect films of 2007. As I’m currently reading the novel, I worried that I’d be judging the work far too harshly without the benefit of separating the two but the movie compliments the book magnificently without parroting it or remaining so completely imprisoned by the book that it feels like a flat or wooden made for television period film.

Announcing itself as a unique reinvention of the competent yet often uninspired frequent masterpiece theatre type adaptations we see time and time again on the big screen (think Memoirs of a Geisha), we begin with a series of quick cuts set to a wonderfully unique score by Italian composer Dario Marianelli that works in the sound of a typewriter with the piano melody as young thirteen year old Briony Tallis finishes the play she’s written for her brother’s return in the summer of 1935. Set in England on a lush meandering and large country estate, we’re introduced first to the highly imaginative Briony (played at this age by a fiercely mature Saoirse Ronan), her slightly bored older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (Last King of Scotland’s James McAvoy in a career making role), the college aged son of their housekeeper Brenda Blethyn.

After Robbie professes his love for Cecilia over several varying drafts of notes, he selects one for Briony to deliver and when the two declare the mutual affection of which they seemed to have been ignorant for a long time, they impulsively make love only to be caught by a confused Briony. When events turn tragic on the same fateful night, Briony, upset and overwhelmed by everything she’s seen in one day makes a false accusation and Robbie is taken in by British authorities, and later serves prison time where he is released only when he makes the choice to become a soldier in World War II.

While the first part of the film shows off not only the bravura score by Marianelli, the sumptuous cinematography from Irish cameraman Seamus McGarvey (responsible for the equally lovely photography on The Hours) and careful editing by Paul Tothill that manages to capture different points of view of each character in a series of scenes indicative of its literary source, the second part of the film is more classically stylized with a darker palette to suit the tone of danger and resignation during wartime both in France with Robbie and England with the Tallis sisters as Briony is now played by one of my favorite young actresses Romola Garai. In the third act the methods employed in both parts are combined to superb effect before a fittingly melancholy and modern conclusion that finds the last and third actress portraying Briony in Vanessa Redgrave.

As reported on IMDb, to prepare for the film, Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright immersed himself in British movies of the 1940’s and was particularly inspired by Brief Encounter and while homage is paid to cinema of that era, it’s a stunning work that makes wise decision to use some modern techniques with older sensibilities and filmmaking as well. Following up his wonderful Pride and Prejudice which also starred Keira Knightley in an Academy Award nominated performance as Elizabeth Bennet with only his second feature film, Wright also made history by being the youngest director (just 35) to have his film open the Venice Film Festival.

Hot off the heels of seven Golden Globe nominations and a great marketing campaign from Focus Features (which is quickly becoming the new Miramax), Atonement has as of this review landed in the top spot of my favorite films of 2007 and will no doubt earn Wright and several others involved Academy Award nominations in the coming year.