I’ve been doing full-length book reviews here for quite a while, and rest assured that I will continue to do so. But why not do an occasional movie review as well?
Accordingly, here’s my take on a film that gathered 7 Academy Award nominations (including for Best Picture) and actually won 2 in 2007. Saoirse Ronan was named Best Supporting Actress and Dario Marianelli took home an Oscar for Best Original Score.
Atonement (2007) is a sprawling period tale of love and loss, jealousy and betrayal, war and a deeply flawed attempt at making things right. It was directed by Joe Wright. Christopher Hampton wrote the screenplay, adapting Ian McEwan’s novel.
The film opens in the mid-1930s. Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is the elder daughter of an aristocratic English family that lives in a ritzy rural estate. She and Robbie (James McAvoy) are coming to terms with having a serious case of the hots for one another. Unfortunately, her 13-year-old little sister (and budding author) Briony (played by Ronan) also has a crush on Robbie. Briony secretly spots the young lovers going at it and is seriously angered.
Meanwhile, their brother’s visiting pal (played with somewhat oily charm by Benedict Cumberbatch) has taken an unhealthy shine to the family’s visiting 15-year-old cousin Lola (Juno Temple). He makes a move on the unsuspecting girl, jumping her from behind in the dark (so she doesn’t know his identity, even as he begins to molest her).
Everybody else is also outside, looking for 2 little kids who decided to run away from home. Briony hears the struggle and catches Cumberbatch in the act, who runs off.
Vengeful Briony (the only eyewitness to the attacker’s identity) lies that it was Robbie and the police are waiting when an unknowing Robbie brings the wayward youngsters home. Cecilia and Robbie are literally pried apart due to this false testimony.
We then jump ahead 5 years to the start of World War Two. Given a choice between remaining in prison or joining the army, Robbie has of course enlisted. Though seriously wounded and separated from his unit in an early defeat, Robbie and a couple buddies manage to return to what’s left of the shattered British Expeditionary Force. The BEF is now little more than a confused mob, hanging on at the Dunkirk coast as the English navy (and many civilian ships) are about to conduct the most famous mass evacuation in wartime history.
The epic scenes of the routed army’s plight are among the most striking images ever committed to film. Will Robbie be rescued or be left behind?
Back in England, Cecilia has never believed in his guilt, nor forgiven her sister for the devastating lie.
Now 18 (and played by Romala Gerai), Briony has become a nurse in a London hospital to (as Cecilia correctly suspects) do penance for her vicious untruth. The younger girl grows up fast in the presence of war’s hideous realities. Worse still, she learns Cumberbatch’s character is about to marry Lola (who still apparently has no idea who her attacker was).
Watching this evil farce of a wedding take place leads Briony to seek out her sister, to admit the truth/beg forgiveness.
She finds Cecilia and an apparently recovering Robbie living together in a small apartment. They aren’t about to forgive Briony, but romantic love has triumphed after all–right?
We jump ahead to our times. Briony (now played by Vanessa Redgrave) is 77-years-old and, as she tells a TV interviewer, dying. Only now, in promoting her 21st and last novel, is the famed author publicly revealing the full truth to the world. What we’ve just witnessed on screen is her wishful imagining of what could’ve happened, had Robbie and Cecilia survived. As Briony explains, we see how things actually went.
We watch Robbie fade away, dying of his infected wound in a bombed out building. And we see Cecilia’s bizarre death months later, drowning when German bombing causes a fatal flood at a station of the London Underground (an actual historical event, by the way).
Elderly Briony never saw them reunited and only now, in a strange (and one might say kind of twisted) effort to atone for her great and consequential crime, she has written the happy ending they were denied–even as she confesses all on national television!
I felt the movie was extremely well-made and certainly emotionally powerful. I appreciated that it didn’t turn out to be a sappy, feel-good, love conquers all kind of predictable thing. And yet, for my money, old Briony’s all-too-late expression of honesty strikes me as something closer to masochistic showboating than real “Atonement.”
But yet again, I’m glad I got a chance to watch this film on DVD. If you haven’t seen it, give it a look.