It’s difficult to find the right words to describe “Atonement.” Words have too much power after this. They’re frightening things, able to mutilate emotions and ruin lives. Not in recent memory has a film so successfully focused on the devastating force of words as “Atonement” has.
The novel by Ian McEwan, on which this film is based, is a crowning achievement, and its cinematic adaptation is excellent as well. Director Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice”) has made a name for himself adapting literature to film, and he shows the same care and ability to focus in this work. Though secondary characters are introduced in a rush, the movie never feels as though it lost the essentials that made the book so mesmerizing. The film is incredibly tight, effortlessly shifting across years and viewpoints. Wright shows different perspectives of scenes, cutting back across time to replay the pivotal moments between Cecilia (Keira Knightley, “Pride & Prejudice”) and Robbie (James McAvoy, “The Last King of Scotland”) through their eyes and the eyes of her sister Briony (new-comer Saoirse Ronan).
It’s Briony’s unique interpretation of events that sets everything in motion. The movie begins on the Tallis estate, where precocious 13-year-old Briony secretly witnesses the blooming love between her sister Cecilia and the housekeeper’s son Robbie. She considers herself a writer, and the score is punctuated by the sounds of a typewriter. Her sense for the dramatic prudishness and use of imagination perhaps makes what happens next more understandable, but no less ruinous. Unable to comprehend what she sees, Briony’s misunderstanding is directly responsible for Robbie’s involvement in World War II.
“Atonement” then smoothly shifts, focusing on the war and the home front. Robbie began as the quintessential good man, filled with hope and life. The extraordinary transformation in McAvoy’s eyes by the end of the movie portrays how much was lost in him after Briony’s betrayal.
War can break men’s bodies, as seen in the horrors of the hospitals where Briony worked, but words can also kill a man’s soul. The scenes of broken men, physically and emotionally, force the audience to wonder which pain is worse.
The movie is about more than the division between truth and lies, fact and fiction. It’s also the juxtaposition of noise and quiet, words and silence. Movies are noisy things, but “Atonement” makes the audience explore the quiet moments, when words fail or are not needed.
The idea of “coming back,” either from anger and pain or guilt, is weaved throughout each storyline. Cecilia whispers “come back to me” to Robbie as he’s taken away, but it’s also a part of Briony’s story as well. She has to come back from the consequences of her actions to make amends. And eventually, Briony uses words to try to achieve her redemption, but after a movie filled with their destructive power, it’s hard to imagine them being used to create hope.
Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 stars
At Quality 16 and Showcase