“No rhymes and no embellishments”
Ladies and gentlemen, a hand for director Joe Wright; he has crafted a masterpiece. With resemblances to films like Cold Mountain and A Very Long Engagement, Atonement is just so much more. Visually stunning, intellectually stimulating, and forever heartbreaking, Wright has made a movie like no other this year. Sure I have seen “perfect” films this year, for lack of a better word, but even Gone Baby Gone winds up far down the list when compared to all 10/10 films I’ve seen and given that mark to. This is the first film all year that I can truly say is something I will buy and share with everyone I know. I can only imagine how much greater Ian McEwan’s novel upon which this is based can be. From the start right on until the end, we are shown a glimpse into the lives of the Tallis family and those surrounding them. It is a time of social status and proper manners, an era led along by its rules and prejudices. For a young girl—too naïve and innocent to fully grasp what it is she sees—that world is a very dangerous playground.
The backbone of the tale lies in the fact that everyone sees events and history through their own eyes. What is the truth anyway? Unless you are privy to every second of an occurrence, from its cause to its effect, you can never really comprehend if that which you saw was real, and even then it is a very fine line to walk. Atonement is at all times playing with this notion, showing us sequences from the eyes of the viewer and than again through those of the participants. Whereas the two lovers are afraid to let slip their social faux-pas of a relationship outside of classes, the accuser is so set in the warped truth she believes that to think about the situation objectively is not at the front of her mind. Now I knew from the trailers what was to occur, that a sexual encounter would lead the young girl to incriminate an innocent man, but I never believed that instance could be as brutal as it was. The groundwork laid down for young Briony Tallis to even consider her girlish crush Robbie could ever do such an atrocity was what I thought would tear these people apart. Boy was I wrong.
It is amazing how one moment in time can so utterly devastate the lives of all involved. The consequences of which can never be imagined until years later after they have already occurred. Between Robbie having to go to jail and than join the army in WWII for a crime he did not commit, (it is tough to watch his return to the house with the two young twins that he had been out trying to find, totally oblivious to the crime that transpired while he was gone), and his love Cecilia Tallis losing the one thing she didn’t know she even had until a couple hours before, it is tough to believe the orchestrator of all that sorrow would have it even worse. Cecilia’s sister Briony did what she thought was right, led into a lie by the victim herself, and she would have to live with that regret and guilt for the rest of her life, without any means to vindicate herself or make amends. I don’t even know if what she did could honestly ever be forgiven; her sheltered aristocratic upbringing and wild storytelling imagination can be held accountable. The times are at fault too for holding the weak words of a 13-year-old as fact against an inferior servant boy, no matter how much a part of the family he had become or how educated he was.
The acting is phenomenal across the board. From the supporting players out, everyone holds their end of the bargain and shines. The improper sexual attraction between Benedict Cumberbatch’s chocolate tycoon and Tallis cousin Lola, played by Juno Temple, is exuded perfectly; the confused girl at the center of it all, Briony, is brought to life remarkably by all three incarnations during her lifetime with Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave; and Daniel Mays is unforgettable as Robbie’s friend in the war as they travel to reach Dunkirk. Mays’ steals some moments in a brief role, complete with the wonderful view on the war, “the French hate us. We already have India and Africa, let’s just let Germany take France and Italy, heck, who has ever been to Poland anyway?”
Despite all the support, though, it is the lead characters that carry this film. Keira Knightley is amazing as Cecilia, growing out of her groomed lifestyle to be with the man she knows she has always loved. The pain she must express and the hurt her love causes herself is believable at every turn. I will admit to never seeing all the hype with her as an actress, but that opinion has totally been wiped away. As for Robbie, the man at the heart of it all, James McAvoy has really come into his own. Sure he has been great in previous work, even stealing scenes from Oscar winner Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, but it is his portrayal here that shows his true worth. Knowing his place in society, he accepts his fate. Only when he finds out a few years later that his love was not a tenuous one is he allowed to breakdown and fight to survive. The scene where he meets Briony again many years after that fateful night is powerful to experience as emotions run high and wild. All three actors in that scene deliver.
Not to be overshadowed, director Joe Wright deserves a lot of praise and credit too. His handling of the material is impeccable and the end result glorious to behold. From the editing style, showing us all viewpoints of every situation, to the sweeping crane shots following characters, to the brilliant performances he gets out of all involved, Wright has a steady hand and complete control. The film would be a top ten candidate as a result of just two sequences, even if the rest were trash. When the war hits Briony’s hospital, the montage of carnage, grief, and compassion is overwhelming, however, it is the arrival of Robbie and his two friends at Dunkirk that takes the prize. This elaborate long take is absolutely astonishing. It begins with their arguing to a superior about getting back home, going on to the slaughter of horses and automobiles, a group of men singing, some men on an amusement park ride, losing the three men to eventually join up with them again as they rejoin each other at the bar across the way, ending on an all encompassing view of the chaos on the beach. Stunning to behold, that scene sums up the whole film with its artistry and attention to detail. Complete with a startling revelation at its conclusion, I can’t think of a better word than perfect for when I am ever asked what I thought of the film.
Atonement 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★
 Keira Knightley (left) and James McAvoy (right) star in Focus Features’ ATONEMENT, the romance based on Ian McEwan’s award-winning best-selling novel, directed by Joe Wright (PRIDE & PREJUDICE). Photo: Alex Bailey