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Empire List #442: Atonement

Joe Wright’s “Atonement” (2007) is a war drama focusing on three people who have their own personal drama to deal with as the world falls apart. Keira Knightley plays Cecilia Tallis, a young woman living in an upper class mansion in the British countryside. James McAvoy is Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son who can’t keep his eyes off her. Saoirse Ronan plays Briony, Cecilia’s younger sister, who will destroy their lives. The worst part is, it was all a big misunderstanding.

This was yet another one of those movies I had to wait until the DVD came out so that I could watch it in the original English version. For a while that became my game plan for big Hollywood movies. If the movie theatres in Quebec wouldn’t release them in English, I would wait a couple of months and then rent three of them per week during my summer break from university. It’s a shame, because “Atonement” is beautifully shot and deserves a big screen.

The whole drama begins with a small mistake, leading to a huge misunderstanding. Robbie clearly wants to be with Cecilia, but this being England in 1935, he decides to write her a letter to tell her how he feels. He goes through several drafts, including an unfiltered one in which he explicitly writes what he wants, sexually. He then writes a decent one, puts it in an envelope, and gives it to Briony so that she will give it to her sister. The problem: he sent the sexually explicit letter. This is why you should always double check before you send your mail.

Much to his surprise when Cecilia reads the letter she is shocked at first, but not insulted. I guess the thought was “hey, I am game if you are.” So the two of them get together before dinner in the library. Unfortunately, Briony read the letter and sees the two of them in the library. Since she is only thirteen years old she believes Robbie is raping her sister. That same evening in the mansion’s woods Briony finds her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) who actually has been raped. Briony tells the police she saw Robbie do it and gives the letter as proof.

Robbie is sent to prison but four years letter he is given a get-out-of-jail-free-card in the form of enrolment in the British army. It is now 1939, Hitler is taking over Europe, and the army needs every man it has, even convicts. Meanwhile, both Cecilia and Briony (now played by Romola Garai) are nurses in London, but they are no longer on speaking terms. Cecilia blames her for Robbie’s prison term and Briony now knows she was wrong to do what she did. Her goal in life is to now repair the damage she has done and hopefully receive forgiveness.

Director Joe Wright is not only telling a very powerful story, but is telling it with wondrous camera skills. This movie is famous for a continuous 5 minute and 5 second shot as Robbie and other soldiers arrive at the seaside town of Dunkirk, France. Dunkirk, for those who weren’t listening during social studies class, was the town where the allied troops retreated when it became clear Hitler was going to take over France. British, French, and Belgian troops all converged to the town with the goal of getting the hell out of there before the Nazis bombed the place. Suffice it to say the place was crowded, which is perfectly illustrated as Wright’s camera follows Robbie and his men as they walk on the disorganized beach.

Having taken a course in shooting and editing, I can’t imagine the logistical problems that Wright had to deal with while shooting a scene with that many extras for five minutes. Everybody needs to be at exactly the right spot, the lighting needs to be perfect, and you have to capture the right sound. This guy is good.
Between the war drama and the tension between the three leads, who all give excellent performances, this makes for one powerful story. The third act features Vanessa Redgrave as an older Brionny who, years later, is still dealing with the consequences of a childhood mistake. It’s a short but strong performance that provides a knockout of an ending.


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