Joe Wright cemented his place as a new, seriously talented director with his latest film, Atonement. Having already made some noise with his first film (the generally well received adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (2005)) Wright continues to bring history to the screen. Atonement was a greater challenge, requiring vast amounts of skill to do justice to Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel.
The movie spans several decades and moods. Three distinct time periods tell the story of Cecilia Tallis ( Keira Knightley), her little sister Briony (played by three separate actresses) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). The story follows these three as their lives take place in the 1930′s upper-crust home of the Tallis’ where Robbie is the Cambridge-educated son of the groundskeeper, and through the devastation of WWII in France.
The film opens before the war, at the palatial estate of the Tallis family. Cecilia has been fighting her attraction to Robbie, the son of the Tallis’ grounds keeper, for years and Briony has her own school girl crush on him. The sexual tension between Robbie and Cecilia is palpable.
On a momentous day, with the ‘clarity of passion,’ Cecilia and Robbie finally act on their sexual attraction to each other due to a farcical miscommunication. This act is witnessed, but not understood by 13 year old Briony who misinterprets the act as something violent committed by a sex maniac. Another tragic event that evening, the rape of a cousin, forces Briony to accuse Robbie of these things which places his future in jeopardy.
The film then jumps ahead to 1939. Robbie is an ex-con fighting in the army in lieu of sitting in jail. Cecilia has become a nurse for the war effort and is now completely estranged with the her family who prefer keeping the untidiness of that fateful night tucked in the past, rather than revisiting it to learn the truth. It’s during this time that Robbie and Cecilia have one, fleeting encounter in London before Robbie reports for duty. In a scene that will surely stick in the minds of viewers long after the credits stop rolling, the two reunite with few words, but the acting screams volumes. In an obvious attempt at penance, Briony has also become a nurse and deserting her place at Cambridge. Now 18, she has come to grasp what she has done to Robbie and her sister and seeks to make atonement for the ruined lives she caused.
Christopher Hampton (The Quiet American) faced quite the task of taking McEwan’s sprawling and complex tale and turning it into just over two hours running time. Yet, the feel of the film isn’t rushed. All the elements work together to create what can only be considered an instant classic, a masterpiece, and an obvious favorite for this year’s award season. The moving and emotional original score by Dario Marianelli (V for Vendetta, Pride and Prejudice) works hand in hand with Wright’s vision for the film, adding to the splendor of the 1930s privileged life in the upper class and underscoring the devastation of war, death, and love lost.
The art direction alone is prime example of cinematography as art, pay attention Oscar. In perhaps the films finest moment, a single camera shot of over 5 minutes follows Robbie on a beach in the city of Dunkirk as 300,000 British soldiers await evacuation. Wright uses the shot to sum up a scene that must have taken thousands of words in the novel, to show the horrific reality of war. The camera weaves and darts and just when you think it will cut to the next shot, it stays with Robbie as he wanders past crumbling buildings, a singing choir, and euthanized show horses.
Even though each individual element of the film is fantastic (scriptwriting, directing, acting, etc.) the film is somehow more than sum of it’s parts. Even with all the talent that went into this film, it wouldn’t have been the masterpiece it is if Wright had forgotten the simple power of McEwan’s words. One can’t help but get excited about this new comer and his newest film-as-art. This is not your father’s period piece, and Atonement is something no one will soon forget.