Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai & Vanessa Redgrave
To all who have never seen the film: feel free to finish reading the first three paragraphs, but beyond that, I have absolutely no way of describing this film without spoilers. Please don't say "I'll just keep reading because I'll never see it anyway". The reason I say this is that the spoilers really have little to do with the plot, I'm more concerned about taking away the pure emotion of tragedy that's shown in this film. I pretty much never cry watching movies, but this one does it. And it's not even my first time seeing it. Oh, and when I looked up the trailer on YouTube just now, I sort of had to fight back tears again. So please, don't read on, and see this film (but only when you've braced yourself against a tsunami of sadness).
In 1935, Briony is a thirteen-year-old girl from a very wealthy family. While in her estate somewhere in the English countryside, she witnesses something without fully comprehending what she's seeing: her sister Cecilia is undressing herself while glaring defiantly at Robbie. In reality, Robbie accidentally broke an incredibly expensive vase that Cecilia was carrying, and Cecilia angrily undresses to jump into the fountain in which a piece fell. Later, Robbie is struggling to write an apology to Cecilia, also trying to tell her that he loves her. Jokingly, he types a crude letter using the "C" word, intending to destroy it. Instead, he accidentally gives this version of the letter to Briony to deliver to Cecilia. Briony reads it, and is completely shocked and vigilant of Robbie's actions. That very night, she steps into the estate's library and finds Cecilia and Robbie in coitus, and she becomes certain the Robbie is a dangerous character.
Later, two of Briony's cousins have run away. The whole family, including Robbie, goes searching for them. Instead, Briony discovers the sister of the cousins, Lola, being raped by a man. The man flees, and Lola tells Briony she doesn't know who it was. Briony is certain it was Robbie, and accuses him in front of the police.
--This is where spoilers begin--
After years in prison, Robbie is sent to war in France. Cecilia remains faithful to him, constantly awaiting his return while working as a nurse in London. Briony, too, has become a nurse. Cecilia refuses to return Briony's letters, and Briony has decided to visit her in person at her flat in Balham. Beforehand, she attends Lola's wedding. She is being married to a man we had seen at the estate earlier on - the man who Briony had always known was Lola's true attacker.
At Cecilia's flat, Robbie has returned from war, and threatens to kill Briony before Cecilia calms him. They tell Briony to immediately write a letter to the police to inform them that Robbie has been falsely accused. This action will allow Robbie to finally marry Cecilia.
Thirty years later, Briony appears on television for an interview on her latest book. She admits it is autobiographical, detailing the relationship between her, Cecilia and Robbie. She also admits that the ending - in which she makes amends with Cecilia and Robbie at their flat in Balham - is fictional. Robbie had died in France, and Cecilia had been killed in the bombing of the Balham tube station. In writing a happy ending, Briony feels she has given a gift to the two of them, finally allowing them happiness together.
There is just so much emotion that has been put into this film. I've only seen James McAvoy and Keira Knightley in other films, and of the films of theirs I've seen, I've never seen them put on performances as phenomenal as this. As for the other actors, I doubt I'll ever see them be able to outdo this.
The music is very simple, with only one theme being expanded on. What makes it so genius is how well it fits with the script. A typewriter is often used as a percussion instrument in scenes where Briony is typing, and even when a woman bashes in the side of a car, the sound of her hits slowly becomes a part of the score. There are loads more examples where the line between the score and the sound effects are seamless, but it never is so overdone that it takes away from the film.
All of the imagery is shocking. From the lavish estate in the country to the blood-drenched shores of Normandy to the platform of Balham Station, every shot is made with passion (and, in the end, devastation).
I avoided watching this for days in order to prepare myself for floods of emotion, but it didn't do me any good. What a great, horrible (in a good way) film. Should've gotten more awards than it did (it was nominated for seven Oscars, only won for Best Original Score).
Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):
- Joe Wright had wanted Keira Knightley to play the role of Briony in her late teens, but Knightley immediately liked the character of Cecilia, and also wanted to get away from playing girls on the brink of womanhood and play a more mature character for once.
- James McAvoy considered the script the best he had ever read.
- As Robbie is hauled off by the police and his mother frantically yells "liar" while running up the road, Briony peers from a staircase landing through a window decorated with figures in stained glass. The figure in the window Briony stares through is labeled Matilda. This is an allusion to a famous children's poem by Hilaire Belloc entitled "Matilda", whose first line runs, "Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one's eyes". By the end of the poem, Matilda has burned to death, having called wolf one time too many.
- The green dress which Keira Knightley wore in the film has been named "the best of all time" by InStyle magazine, exceeding some classics as Audrey Hepburn's little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Marilyn Monroe's white dress in The Seven Year Itch(1955) or Vivien Leigh's red dress from Gone with the Wind (1939).
- Only eight U.K. military ambulances from WWII remain, and Atonement made use of them all.