Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
In this day and age of over-hyped movies where trailers play in theatres, on your computer screen, on television and even on your cell phone, it’s nearly impossible to go into a film with little or no knowledge of the plot. So I was extremely fortunate to know basically nothing about Atonement going in, including the fact that it was based on a novel by Ian McEwan. I really hope that other critics don’t give away all of the film’s surprises, because everyone deserves to experience them as I did. I don’t mean cheap twists and turns, but rather changes in point-of-view and revelations about what we think we’re seeing, but more of that later. Atonement is a film that’s as much about the telling of a story as it is about the story that it’s telling, and it pays off in the end, provided you pay close attention to the small details. That in itself is a wonder.
James McAvoy (Starter for 10, The Last King of Scotland) plays Robbie Turner, the son of a housekeeper for a wealthy British family. He is in love with Cecelia (Keira Knightley) one of the daughters, while Cecilia’s younger sister Briony, a fledgling writer, watches jealously. When something awful happens on one very hot night, Briony incriminates Robbie when in fact she knows that he is innocent. Robbie ends up in jail briefly, and is then given the option of entering into the army during World War II. In the meantime Cecilia becomes a battlefield nurse – as does Briony – and during the war there are plenty of casualties to attend to.
The film follows each of these three characters through the war, and it does so by jetting back and forth in time as it intertwines what has become of their lives because of Briony’s awful lie. Robbie and Cecilia are able to get together sporadically throughout the war and talk about “coming back” to each other at some other time, while Briony sees her work as a nurse as a way of giving back, a penance of sorts as she realizes the full consequences of what she has done. She sees soldiers as they come in with ghastly wounds, and at times she thinks she sees Robbie. But it’s just her imagination getting the best of her. She decides that she wants to see her sister and tell her the truth about what happened, and she even wants to go to a judge in order to change her story.
Robbie in the meantime is in the middle of a war which seemingly has no end in sight. There is a bravura scene which follows him and a couple of other soldiers as they walk around a beachfront which is swarming with soldiers, tanks, animals, and a Ferris wheel. When Robbie gets a few minutes to sleep all he can dream about is Cecilia. There have been many films that take place during WWII, but few capture the devastation it caused both on and off the battlefield the way Atonement does.
We wonder as we watch the film if the two main characters will find each other again at the end of the war. It sure feels at times as though it is heading in that direction. It also seems as though Briony will make good on her commitment to tell the truth and set the record straight. She believes it’s not too late to set things right, or is it? You may wonder why the scenes where Robbie and Cecilia meet for a quick moment here and there seem out of place or hard to imagine. You may wonder if Briony could really be in some of the places that she ends up both physically and emotionally. Are we watching the truth or much like Briony’s lie, is it someone else’s version of the truth?
Atonement answers these questions in a satisfying fashion in its final ten minutes. I won’t reveal what happens but I will say that Vanessa Redgrave is part of it all. The fact that everything comes together in such a beautiful and heartfelt fashion means that much credit has to be given to screenwriter Christopher Hampton. Adapting such a multi-layered novel couldn’t have been an easy task and Hampton does a fantastic job. The same goes for director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) who shows restraint and control without being pretentious. While at first we wonder why several scenes are backtracked and shown a second time from a different point of view, when all is said and done it makes perfect sense. When you think about how we all run memories through our heads at various times in our life, does it always play out the same way? The same goes for the conscience which can make us rethink our actions in order to come to a conclusion.
While there is much in Atonement that may or may not have actually taken place, don’t we always take a leap of faith when we read a novel or watch a film? How do we know that the writer/author is telling us the truth? For most people the most important thing in this kind of story is a happy ending but in the case of Atonement it may be the storyteller who wants that more than anyone else.