UK, 2007, 123 minutes, Colour.
James Mc Avoy, Keira Knightly, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, Gina Mc Kee.
Directed by Joe Wright.
Atonement is a particularly religious term. While it is not referred to as explicitly religious in this film, this is its implicit meaning. In fact, the screenplay also uses the term, penance.
Atonement is based on the novel by Booker Prize winner, Ian Mc Ewan. The screenplay has been written by playwright, Christopher Hampton, and retains the literary quality of the novel. It is worth seeing.
The film has three parts and builds up very well to a surprising ending. The first part is set in the English countryside in 1935. Echoes of the Merchant Ivory period films. Atonement also gives great attention to detail. We are in a narrow world of wealth on a country estate. But the focus is on 13 year old Briony who is seen finishing a play. She is a young girl of imagination, romantic imagination, excellently played by Saoirse Ronan. She watchs her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and her interactions with the son of the housekeeper, Robbie (James Mc Evoy). The audience watches the same scene from Cecilia’s and Robbie’s point of view and soon finds that Briony has misinterpreted what has happened. She does the same the same evening with disastrous consequences for Robbie and for Cecilia. It is her sin which needs confession and atonement.
The second part of the film is World War II action in 1940. This section is broad in scope, taking audiences well beyond the country estate. Robbie is a soldier lost in Northern France. Cecilia is a nurse. So also is Briony. The war setting gives occasion for a quite lavish and extraordinary recreation of the stranding of the soldiers at Dunkirk. It is a far more realistic picture than we have previously seen in war films. The scenes in London at the hospitals are also vividly portrayed.
Briony has the opportunity to acknowledge the hurt that she has done and takes the chance of visiting Cecilia and confessing. This is a powerful sequence as she accepts the responsibility while knowing that she might never be forgiven.
The final section is brief. Briony is being interviewed in the present on the publication of her novel, Atonement, which she says is an honest telling of what happened in her childhood and in her attempts to make atonement. She is played movingly by Vanessa Redgrave whose performance is principally in direct to screen close up.
This is a satisfying drama, especially for those who appreciate literary translations to screen. And it has some depth to the characters, the terrible realities of 'sin' and its consequences as well as the hopes for redemption.
1.The impact of the film: British period drama? Adaptation of a novel? Psychological drama?
2.The title, themes of sin, offence, repentance, expiation, atonement, forgiveness?
3.The structure: the three periods: 1935, 1940, the present world? Scenes seen from Briony’s point of view, seen from a different point of view and contradicting Briony’s perspective? Speculations, the reality? The war sequences? Doug Kirk? The score – and the incorporation of the typewriting into the music?
4.Briony’s story: Briony at thirteen, writing the play and completing it, marching through the house, the affirmation of her mother, the rehearsal with her cousins, their unwillingness, her being bossy? Living in a world of romantic fantasy? Her moods? Watching Ce and Robbie at the fountain, their behaviour, her interpretation? The audience seeing then what actually happened? Leon’s arrival, Paul Marshall, Robbie asking her to take the letter, reading it, telling Lola, the accusations against Robbie as a sex pervert, catching Robbie and Cecilia in the library, the audience getting the true version? The tension at the meal, the twins missing, the search? The atmosphere for Briony, in the caves, the light and dark, seeing Lola and Paul, her being upset, her telling her mother, the police? Confirming that the man was Robbie? Vindictive? His going to prison? The later flashback from Robbie’s perspective of her diving in the water, wanting him to save her, his anger with her? Her later telling the story herself?
5.Ce, older, the relationship with Robbie, uncertain, the years of study together? The upstairs/downstairs relationship? The scene with the vase and her going into the fountain, the letter and her reaction, humorous, the library? From Briony’s point of view, from Ce’s point of view? The meal, the search, her grief at Robbie going to jail? Writing, wanting to visit?
6.Robbie, the background, in the garden, his mother as the housekeeper, his father abandoning them, the family paying for the studies? His wanting to be a doctor? The vase, the fountain, writing the various drafts of the letter and the humour, the wrong letter being given to Briony? Ce and her understanding? The kiss in the library, his finding the twins and bringing them back, arrested?
7.The twins, their dissatisfaction, their parents’ divorce, Lola trying to keep control, be the adult? The rehearsals for the play – and getting away to swim? Paul’s arrival, the chocolates, talking with the children, with Lola? His talk about business, the army and the chocolates being in the kitbags, making money? His encounter with Lola, running away, not telling the truth? The scene of his marrying Lola and Briony being present? The words of the priest about any objections?
8.The glimpse of the mother, her migraines, her supporting Briony? The search, her manners, her being upset and believing Briony? Leon and his bringing Paul Marshall down?
9.The transition of four years, World War Two, the war in France, the three men wandering, the effect, hiding and the partisans bringing them food, walking, finding the dead schoolgirls, lost, smelling the sea, Robbie and his memories of Ce?
10.Arrival in Dunkirk, the vast nature of the set at the beach, the men’s walk through the beach, the crowds of soldiers, the thousands, the fire, the choir, the trick, the shooting of the horses, the ferris wheel, the bar, the dugout, Robbie crying in his sleep? The hope for rescue?
11.Robbie’s memories of Ce, her enlisting, her work, meeting him, their talk in the café, the bond between them, his chasing the bus, her letters and the postcard – and their being burnt after his death? Chasing the bus, his last view of Ce?
12.Ce and her work, leaving home, no contact with Briony? The scene of Briony’s visit, her confession? Robbie in the room, coming in, unable to accept Briony’s confession, unforgiving?
13.Briony at eighteen, being a nurse, the sister in charge, not wanting her to be too friendly with the soldiers? The visuals of the wounded soldiers coming to the hospital? Her being asked to comfort the Frenchman, his telling his stories about the holidays, her sympathy, the blood on her face? Her expiation by scrubbing and cleaning, slaving? Her acknowledging the truth? The discovery of Paul and Lola’s wedding, her being present? The decision to confess to Ce? Going to the house, her repentance, Robbie’s refusal, her leaving the house – and the audience seeing the two kiss upstairs?
14.Briony sixty years later, Vanessa Redgrave’s presence and performance? Dying, the television interview, telling the truth, wanting to make up for what she had done?
15.The final happy ending – and if only? Finding happiness in the literature and the fantasy? The deaths of Robbie and Ce?
16.The scope of the narrative, from a small world and small incidents, small sins, to a vast world of war and death?