On a sultry summer day in 1935, an upper-class British family prepares for a dinner party at their country estate. The players: Briony Tallis (newcomer Saoirse Ronan), a precocious preteen writer; her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), Cambridge graduate and femme fatale; Robbie Turner (James McEvoy), the housekeeper's mensch-y son, who carries a torch for Cecilia; and various visitors and family members.
A series of misperceptions, fueled by the summer heat and Briony's childish hurts and fevered imagination, lead to a dramatic false accusation that lands Robbie in jail. We meet all three characters five years later in the thick of World War II, as foot soldier Robbie prepares for the Dunkirk evacuation and the two estranged sisters train as nurses in London. Director Joe Wright (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE) deserves high praise for translating Ian McEwan's highly internalized, multilayered tale of guilt, redemption, and the power and limits of the artistic imagination, into a sumptuous visual feast that not only conveys the intricate plot points of the novel, but dives headfirst into the emotional subtleties that make the story so wrenching.
Whether any of the characters' actions are ultimately atoned for by the end of the film is a matter of perception, but Wright's sympathetic eye ensures that every player gets a fair trial. The young director favors long, lingering close-ups that trace every flicker of feeling--Ronan's luminous blue eyes clouding over with righteous gravity; the tremors of hurt and anger and love in McEvoy's sensitive face; the defiant jut of Knightley's jaw as it melts into tender affection. The honey-drizzled look of the first two thirds of the film contrasts achingly with the tension and seriousness of the action unfolding (and the grim intensity of the wartime sections), and the scenes on the beach at Dunkirk include some of the most masterly camera work of any recent film.
ATONEMENT is a powerful story, retold in a way that even diehard fans of the book will appreciate.
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