Keira Knightly plays star-crossed lover Cecilia in Atonement. (©2007 Working Title Films).
ATONEMENT plays out like a two-part saga of tragic love, all in one exquisite film. Recipient of two Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Original Score by Dario Marianelli, Atonement is a work of art based on the novel by Ian McEwan and delivered to the screen by the exceptional collaboration of screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright.
As the movie opens, we are submerged in 1930s England in one of those idyllic aristocratic settings that inspire us to ring for the butler. We meet the 13-year-old aspiring writer Briony, and her lovely sister Cecilia, nicely portrayed by Keira Knightly, and Cecilia’s long-time friend Robbie, played by James McAvoy. Amidst the Jane Austen-esque trappings, these two dashing and privileged characters suddenly discover their mutual attraction, and the film takes a sizzling turn.
But the star-crossed lovers are about to face an obstacle, a serious deal-breaker delivered by little Briony, whose motives remain a mystery until the end of the story. And here the film takes an unexpected direction. The hope of young love gets dashed to pieces and we are yanked from the safe blue-blooded harbor only to be sunk into the horror of WWII.
If you’re looking for a warm and fuzzy romance, you’re in the wrong theater. (Go see 27 Dresses). Atonement is about anguish, frustration, and the longing of unfulfilled love. About the torture of being so close to something so perfect that is unexplainedly taken away. Atonement is the journey through several years of war-torn Britain, and three incarnations of the various ages of Briony, the eldest of which is portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave.
If you can handle the angst, you’re in for an experience that sets a new watermark in big screen entertainment. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who also filmed The Hours, delivers camera work that is nothing short of magical. Every scene is not only rich with intimate sound effects, like the tapping of typewriter keys and the creaking of floor boards, but imaginative camera angles, closeups, and panoramas that transport us to cinema extraordinaire. Atonement warrants scrutiny by all aspiring filmmakers.
The film is just a few minutes too long. A little stealth trimming off those 130 minutes would have felt like just the right length. But never mind. You will be thoroughly entertained by a story that never runs out of surprises and promises to satisfy your questions, such as the sad and poignant meaning of its title. You will be dazzled into submission.