Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com at 1/20/08.
In 2005, an unknown director named Joe Wright brought another film adaptation of the beloved Jane Austen novel Pride & Prejudice to the big screen. With an all-star cast led by Keira Knightley, the film became an unexpected hit for the young director as Knightley herself received an Oscar nomination for her role as Elizabeth Bennett. Following the film's success, Wright's next plan was to adapt the beloved Ian McEwan about a love affair torn apart by a lie from a young girl who is trying to figure out her sins. The novel known as Atonement was a hit with critics and book readers as Wright chose to expand his ambitions into a huge film adaptation of McEwan's beloved novel.
Directed by Joe Wright with an adapted script by Christopher Hampton, Atonement tells the story of a young rich girl and the son of a housekeeper who fall in love only to be torn apart by a misinterpreted accusation of the girl's young sister. Following this supposed crime, the lovers try to come together during World War II while the young girl is trying to figure out her sins and the truth itself. Reuniting with Keira Knightley, Joe Wright takes a huge leap in making a film that is grander and more harrowing than his previous film. Also starring James McAvoy, Brenda Blethyn, Harriet Waller, Juno Temple, Patrick Kennedy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Danny Mays, with film director Anthony Minghella, and in the role of Briony, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave. Atonement is a rich, powerful study of sin and its effects from director Joe Wright.
It's the late 1930s as a young girl named Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan) is completing a play she hopes to show when her eldest brother Leon (Patrick Kennedy) is set to return. Meanwhile, everyone is getting prepared as Briony wants to rehearse the play with her young cousins including Lola (Juno Temple) and twins Jackson and Pierrette (Charlie & Felix von Simson). Later that day, Briony talks to her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) about the housekeeper's son Robbie (James McAvoy) who is set to go to medical school with help from Cecilia's father. During a botched rehearsal for Briony's play, Briony sees a moment between Cecilia and Robbie that led to Cecilia jumping into a garden-infested fountain.
Later that day, Leon arrives with a friend named Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch) who wows Cecilia's cousins with chocolates. With Robbie invited to the dinner by Leon, Robbie's mother Grace (Brenda Blethyn) is amazed at how he’s starting to have a great future as he tries to write a letter to Cecilia about his feelings. Yet, when he sees Briony playing in the garden, he asks her to give the letter to Cecilia but then realizes he makes a mistake when Briony reads the letter that she gave to Cecilia. The night starts to become troubling when Briony catches Cecilia and Robbie having sex. Things become more complicated when Briony's behavior towards Robbie is aggressive when she is asked by her mother (Harriet Waller) to fetch the twins. When the twins aren't in their rooms, everyone goes for a search where Briony sees an incident involving Lola that changes everything.
Four years later in the beginning stages of World War II, Robbie is a soldier in Northern France as he is joined by Tommy Nettle (Danny Mays) and Frank Mays (Nonso Anozie) during a mission in France. Robbie accepted to become a soldier to avoid further jail time for a crime he didn't commit due to Briony's testimony years ago. Robbie thinks about a meeting he had with Cecilia six months before as she has become a nurse with a promise to her that he will return to her. Walking to the north beach of France with Tommy and Frank, the ill Robbie finally reaches the beaches of Dunkirk hoping to be evacuated with the rest of wounded soldiers. Meanwhile, Briony (Romola Garai) has become a nurse in training. Trying to figure out what she saw those years ago, she is trying to write a story while hoping to have contact with Cecilia through unsuccessful attempts. Briony finally understands the horrors of war where at one moment, she tries to comfort a dying French soldier named Luc (Jeremie Renier) as she tries to come to terms with her own misinterpretations.
When she finally finds Cecilia's address where three weeks before Robbie is sent to France, she meets her older sister and Robbie as she reveals what she really saw and everything. Yet, with so much bitterness towards her, Briony remains haunted until by the time she becomes 77-year olds and as a writer, Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) reveals what she wrote and the result of everything that had happened as she comes to terms of these events in her final days.
While Ian McEwan's story of sin and its effects, the film is a study of morality and how simple mistakes and misinterpretations can ruin the lives of people and such. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright creates a film about perspectives in the style of what happened and such. The first example is the broken vase scene where Cecilia dives into the fountain to retrieve a broken piece. The first scene is from Briony's young perspective and then the second is from Robbie and Cecilia's. This is a style of storytelling that is made famous by the Akira Kurosawa 1950 classic film Rashomon about a rape & murder told from four different perspectives. It's really a psychological film where Hampton and Wright are trying to get the audience to think about what they've seen and such.
The film is also a character study of sorts from the mind of Briony. Here's a young girl who saw a few things she didn't understand and then, when a crime that she witnesses turns out to go wrong. The motions in event happen as everything falls apart where this girl turned into a young woman is trying to figure out what she really saw and how she can atone herself from these incidents that she caused. Hampton's study of character and sin is really engrossing as the sadness and frustrations in both Robbie and Cecilia for their love together and how these events are forcing them to be apart. While there's an abrupt shift in that moment from Briony's life in World War II to her present time. It conveys the sense of Briony's state of mind from the previous event she just saw as she begins to think about as a 77-year old woman. The script is definitely faithful to Ian McEwan's novel in some respects while it really serves as a film that is part romance and part mystery.
Director Joe Wright whose lush, stylized approach to directing that made his feature-film debut Pride & Prejudice such a delight to watch now takes a huge step forward into crafting his style. The presentations, the compositions he creates as well as the atmosphere from the dream-like world of the Tallis estate with its gardens and ponds to the harsh, desolate world of Dunkirk beach that included an unbroken tracking shot from a steadicam that conveys the sense of horror and sadness. What is clear is that Wright is becoming more confident as a director as he takes the audience back in time to a period where things are tense and such that included such moments of horror during the war. Even Wright's dramatic presentation is more intimate as directs the actor in a theatrical approach, particularly in the Tallis estate scenes and the sequence involving Cecilia, Robbie, and the 18-year old Briony. Overall, Wright has now become a director who is on his way to fulfill his potential.
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey does some wonderful work with his lush presentation of the Tallis exterior daytime scenes with some intimate lighting in some of the darker, interior scenes in the estate. The nighttime sequences are wonderfully colorful as it conveys the sense of emotion while the war-time scenes are wonderfully shot to convey its horror. Notably a scene where Robbie with his fellow soldiers walk into the woods to see an act of horror that has McGarvey doing some amazing work. Editor Paul Tothill does some great cutting from the use of backwards movement to the perspective cutting. Tothill's editing is truly superb to convey the sense of emotion and action that goes on. Even through the very emotional scene of Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie that has a rhythm to confirm every moment of drama that goes on.
Production designer Sarah Greenwood with art director Ian Bailie and set decorator Katie Spencer do amazing work in the posh look of the Tallis estate with all of its period look in the furniture, antiques, and such while the war-time scenes are great to convey the dirty, working-class look. Even in the ruins of the Dunkirk scenes are wonderfully built to convey the sense of horror and tragedy. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran does great work in the period-style costumes from the swimsuits Knightley and Ronan wears to the dresses that Knightley wears at night and in the wartime scenes. Durran's costumes are wonderfully exquisite to the times as even the men whether in tuxedos or in army gear are great. The sound work of Catherine Hodgson, recordist Danny Hambrook, and mixer Paul Hamblin is wonderful in capturing the atmosphere of war in the arrival of the Dunkirk scene while it's in greater use to the Tallis estate scenes in some of young Briony's writing in mix with Robbie's writing a letter to Cecilia.
The film's music consists of operatic and classical pieces by Claude Debussy and Giacomo Puccini plus wartime music by Walter Kent & Nat Burton and the prayer piece Dear Lord & Father Of Mankind by John Greenleaf Whittier and Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry are featured. Yet, the music that dominates the film is the sweeping score of Dario Marianelli. Marianelli's score is truly one of 2007's best film scores with its huge arrangements and rhythmic orchestration that includes themes of Briony that is accompanied by a typewriter-rhythm while the more romantic score is very dramatic with flourishing arrangements. The music of the Dunkirk is also sweeping and dramatic with its sense of horror and tragedy as Marianelli creates a score that truly amazing in its own.
The casting by Jina Jay is superb with wonderful small performances from Belgium actor Jeremie Renier as a wounded French soldier, Nonso Anozie as Frank Mays who walks with Robbie in the woods of Northern France, Gina McKee as Briony's head nurse Sister Drummond, Alfie Allen as servant Danny Hardman, film director Anthony Mingella as the interviewer who interviews the 77-year old Briony, Charlie & Felix von Simson as Briony's twin cousins Jackson and Pierrette, and Pride & Prejudice co-stars Peter Wight as a police inspector, and Brenda Blethyn in a great performance as Robbie's caring mother. Harriet Waller is also good as Cecilia and Briony's mother who adores Briony's talents while in shock over Robbie's actions in the crime.
Patrick Kennedy is good as Cecilia's eldest brother Leon while Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as the charming Paul Marshall. Juno Temple is also excellent as Briony's cousin Lola who manages to become a key player in an incident as she acts a precocious young teenager. One of the film's best supporting performances is Danny Mays as Robbie's fellow soldier Tommy Nettle who brings some humor with some comments but becomes the companion who tries to comfort Robbie in the dire of times.
Keira Knightley delivers a fine performance as Cecilia, a young woman who is deeply in love with Robbie though she couldn't show her feelings publicly. When the love is gone, she is a woman desperate for him as she refuses to have contact with her sister. While it's not as good as her previous collaboration with Wright in Pride & Prejudice, Knightley is at least proving that she's more than a pretty face. James McAvoy delivers an amazing performance as Robbie, a man with ambitions to become a doctor and Cecilia's lover who is good, kind man. When he’s accused of a crime he didn't commit and becomes a soldier, McAvoy's performance is just amazing for his observation and weariness as he sells the sense of frustrations and tragedy of his character. McAvoy and Knightley display amazing chemistry in the scenes they’re in as McAvoy has the look and presence of traditional leading men that came before him.
In the roles of Briony, the trio of actresses for the role are all superb in their performances. Newcomer Saorise Ronan is amazing as the 13-year old Briony, a young girl who has a crush on Robbie and has aspirations to be a writer as she conveys the misguided innocence of a young girl. Ronan's performances in the more dramatic scenes are great for her quick-wit reaction and angst that is displayed as her performance is just unforgettable. Equally as great as well as impressive is Romola Garai as the 18-year old Briony. Garai's performance is astonishing for her sense of restraint in how she tries to come to terms with her actions while not having contact with a lot of people.
Her scene in her attempt to atone for her actions is more surprising as she completely restrains herself from the more dramatic Knightley and forceful McAvoy. It's in that scene that Garai steals the show as she is proving to be one of Britain's finest actresses. Vanessa Redgrave is brilliant in her brief role as the 77-year old Briony who is still trying to find forgiveness in her final days as Redgrave's performance is just powerful for her look and weariness.
Atonement is a rich, powerful, and haunting masterpiece from Joe Wright and company helmed by fantastic performances from Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, and the trio of Saorise Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave. While fans of the book might have some issues with the adaptation, they will at least enjoy Wright's interpretation of the book. Those who loved Pride & Prejudice will be amazed in what Wright did as a director as his next film will definitely be one to anticipate for. In the end, for a rich film that questions sin and its consequences, Atonement is the film to go see.
Joe Wright Films: Pride & Prejudice (2005 film) - The Soloist - Hanna - Anna Karenina
(C) thevoid99 2011
A top quality film, technically excellent in terms of production, cinematography, the score and a decent cast of actors. I'm not overly keen on dramas and at times this does feel a bit slow. However the ending was a real surprise and made it a classic tale of love, or be it a sad one. Good Review!
It is indeed a top quality film. I don't mind slow dramas as long as they pay off in the end is good.
So far, I believe it's Joe Wright's best film so far. I just want to see with what he can do in Hanna.
Thanks for the comment.
Not nearly as emotionally wrenching as I thought it would be. The movie tries so hard to make us believe there is an epic love story between Cecilia and Robbie, yet the central romance is barely built up if at all. This really blunted the emotional impact of the movie for me.
@Castor-I will admit that I wished there was more story to the romance. Since it was told mostly through the perspective of Briony, it was a very different film. I think visually, it has the epic feel but it's not a true epic.
I understand your qualms about the film and I do wish there was more about that love story. Yet, I think it paid off with the ending.
Yes, I think it would have been so much more effective if they had put more effort into the romance.
Talk all you want about a movie like The Notebook but the central romance is really well built up and if Atonement had done something remotely similar, I probably would have been weeping like a little girl at the end ahah
@Castor-Oh not the fuckin' Notebook. I don't mind a weepie love story but not drenched in all of that mush. At least Atonement knew to restrain itself.
The Notebook fucking sucked. I quote Ryan Reynolds... "this is so gay".
It's mushy but Atonement needed some of that. A little too much is certainly better than completely nonexistent in this case ;)
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