Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Vanessa Redgrave.
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 123 mins. Reviewed in Dec 2007
Atonement is a particularly religious term. While it is not referred to as explicitly religious in this film, this is its implicit meaning. In fact, the screenplay also uses the term, penance.
Atonement is based on the novel by Booker Prize winner, Ian McEwan. The screenplay has been written by playwright, Christopher Hampton, and retains the literary quality of the novel. It is worth seeing.
The film has three parts and builds up very well to a surprising ending. The first part is set in the English countryside in 1935. Echoes of the Merchant Ivory period films. Atonement also gives great attention to detail. We are in a narrow world of wealth on a country estate. But the focus is on 13 year old Briony who is seen finishing a play. She is a young girl of imagination, romantic imagination, excellently played by Saoirse Ronan. She watchs her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and her interactions with the son of the housekeeper, Robbie (James McEvoy). The audience watches the same scene from Cecilia’s and Robbie’s point of view and soon finds that Briony has misinterpreted what has happened. She does the same the same evening with disastrous consequences for Robbie and for Cecilia. It is her sin which needs confession and atonement.
The second part of the film is World War II action in 1940. This section is broad in scope, taking audiences well beyond the country estate. Robbie is a soldier lost in Northern France. Cecilia is a nurse. So also is Briony. The war setting gives occasion for a quite lavish and extraordinary recreation of the stranding of the soldiers at Dunkirk. It is a far more realistic picture than we have previously seen in war films. The scenes in London at the hospitals are also vividly portrayed.
Briony has the opportunity to acknowledge the hurt that she has done and takes the chance of visiting Cecilia and confessing. This is a powerful sequence as she accepts the responsibility while knowing that she might never be forgiven.
The final section is brief. Briony is being interviewed in the present on the publication of her novel, Atonement, which she says is an honest telling of what happened in her childhood and in her attempts to make atonement. She is played movingly by Vanessa Redgrave whose performance is principally in direct to screen close up.
This is a satisfying drama, especially for those who appreciate literary translations to screen. And it has some depth to the characters, the terrible realities of ‘sin’ and its consequences as well as the hopes for redemption.
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