© 2007 Ray Wong
Ian McEwan's 2001 novel, Atonement, is often considered one of his best. Director Joe Wright, following his triumphant directorial debut with Pride & Prejudice, should be commended for creating this faithful but emotionally gripping adaptation.
Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a fledging writer with a vivid imagination. She just finished a play, to be performed by her visiting cousins for her brother, Leon (Patrick Kennedy), who is coming home for a family dinner. The rehearsal doesn't go very well, and that's when Briony witnesses something strange that she can't really comprehend. She sees her elder sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), strip down to her undergarments in front of Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper's son, at the fountain. In her mind, she's convinced that Robbie is a threat to Cecilia. When Robbie asks her to deliver a letter to Cecilia, Briony violates his trust and reads the letter, only to find a crude, sexually explicit message. She realizes that Robbie is a sex maniac and must be stopped.
What she doesn't know is that Robbie and Cecilia, after years of having feelings for each other, are finally ready to profess their mutual affection. The series of events lead them to a sexual encounter in the family library, which Briony interrupts. Now, from Briony's point of view, Robbie is attacking her sister and he must be stopped. When her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) was attacked, Briony believes it is Robbie who did it, and she delivers a lie that will forever change Robbie and Cecilia's lives, as well as hers.
James McAvoy (Last King of Scotland) further establishes himself as one of the rising stars from Britain. His performance as the wrongfully accused is heartfelt, nuanced and affecting. There are many key scenes in which he leaves a lasting impression with his understated focus and intensity: meeting with Cecilia at a cafe before shipping off to war, wandering about the countryside in France, confronting Briony in London. Incredible performance. Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice), surprisingly, doesn't have a lot of screen time after the first act; but she, too, has delivered a tour-de-force, understated performance. Her beauty is undeniable, but she has successfully crossed over to playing complex, adult roles.
The central role of Briony is played by three different actresses. As the 13-year-old who sets everything in motion, Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) is intensely sharp -- such a young talent who takes command of every minute of screen time she has. She makes us love to hate her character. As the 18-year-old who tries to come in terms with her "crime," Romola Garai (Amazing Grace) portrays the character with care and sensitivity, trying to understand and finally atone for what she did as a child. Hers is the least showy performance but equally powerful in its subtlety. Finally, Vanessa Redgrave (Evening) is the much-older Briony. Her brief appearance at the end of the film seals the film with a poignant and heartbreaking revelation.
The stellar supporting cast includes Brenda Belthyn (Pride & Prejudice) as Robbie's mother, Juno Temple (Notes on a Scandal) as Briony's less-than-genuine cousin Lola, Patrick Kennedy (A Good Year) as Briony's ernest but clueless brother Leon, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Amazing Grace) as Leon's conniving chocolatier friend Paul Marshall. Notable mention is Daniel Mays (A Good Year) as Robbie's comrade Corporal Nettle.
Christopher Hampton (The Quiet American) has done an incredible job adapting Ian McEwan's introverted, highly expository novel into an emotional journey for the screen. Hampton manages to adhere closely to McEwan's narrative structure, plot, and tone. Granted, a lot of the author's insightful character studies can't be translated, but Hampton successfully trims the fat and keeps the essence of the story and allows the actors to bring their interpretations to life. In many ways, Hampton's adaptation is even more impressive in that it is more emotionally gripping than McEwan's descriptive but cerebral original. Still, there are moments that seem contrived and too deliberate, but such is minor in comparison to the overall quality of the script.
Director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) has a grand vision that meshes well with McEwan's exquisite prose. The cinematography is gorgeous, the settings and details are meticulous, the score (by Dario Marianelli) is rich and powerful. It's a beautiful film -- there are many scenes and images that take my breath away. Wright also succeeds in keeping the structure by repeating key scenes from multiple points of view without confusing the audience. The first half of the film is taut with suspense and mysteries, then the second half turns into a character study with pathos and anguish, including a much-talked about single-shot scene at Dunkirk (it is something to behold). The epilogue delivers a final twist and emotional punch. It's epic, romantic, and tragic.
Is Atonement perfect? No. There are certainly contrivance, and some parts do drag. But the story is layered with such richness, sensibility, intelligence, and fine performances that I can confidently say it's one of the best films of the year.
Stars: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn, Juno Temple, Patrick Kennedy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Christopher Hampton (based on novel by Ian McEwan)
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 8
Production – 9
Total – 8.6 out of 10