Atonement is both a searingly beautiful and a searingly painful film to watch. Based on the bestselling novel by Ian McEwan, the 2007 film deals with youth and naivety, love and passion, separation and war, but primarily guilt and the overwhelming need for reparation, or “atonement”.
One summer day in England in 1935, thirteen year old Briony Tallis (brilliantly played by a young Saoirse Ronan) incorrectly interprets what she witnesses between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), Cecilia’s childhood friend and the son of a servant. What appear to be deviant acts to a child are in reality just flirtations and true acts of passion. Briony’s misconception causes her to wrongly accuse Robbie of a crime he did not commit. Cecilia and Robbie are separated on the very day they succumb to their undying love for each other.
The film follows the characters, in the years that follow. Robbie joins the army in order to get out of prison and is sent to fight in the war, Cecilia becomes a war nurse and although Briony’s passion is for writing, she also becomes a nurse in an effort to punish herself and try to make amends for the past.
James McAvoy is positively brilliant in this film. The range of emotions he is able to emote with his expressions is unparalleled. McAvoy is well matched with Knightley. Their on screen chemistry is tangible.
The soundtrack, costume design, art direction and cinematography are absolute perfection. Case in point…the Dunkirk evacuation scene…an epic single shot – nothing short of a cinematographic masterpiece. Robbie and two other soldiers are so jubilant to finally arrive at Dunkirk for evacuation, but as they walk along the beach they are met with only misery and chaos.
Vanessa Redgrave masterfully plays the older Briony in modern times who is now a successful author. She poignantly conveys Briony’s remorse over her childhood misstep and explains how she would rewrite the past.
Atonement was nominated for 7 Academy Awards (Original Score – which it won, Picture of the Year, Actress in a Supporting Role (Saoirse Ronan), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Art Direction). I would have liked to have seen James McAvoy receive an Ocsar nomination for this role. Saorise Ronan is currently nominated for her second Academy Award for her leading role in 2015’s Brooklyn.