Review by Jack Foley
JOE Wright establishes himself as a genuinely gifted director with Atonement, a first-rate adaptation of the classic novel by Ian McEwan.
Having established some mighty fine credentials with his adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, the director takes the next step in confident fashion to present a beautifully crafted, brilliantly acted and emotionally compelling piece of cinema that ought to appeal to everyone who sees it, whether they’ve read the book or not.
The film begins during a hot summer’s day in 1935 as 13 year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) changes the course of several lives by misreading the relationship between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and housekeeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy) at her country house.
When she witnesses an act of child abuse later that same evening, she accuses Robbie and sets in course a chain of events that have shattering consequences for all concerned.
Realising her mistake years later, as World War II rages, she tries to atone for it by working as a nurse and seeking her sister’s forgiveness. Robbie, meanwhile, finds himself part of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe and heading for the beach at Dunkirk…
In novel form, McEwan’s story is another complex, emotionally layered reads that many have deemed un-adaptable. Wright, however, makes a mockery of such claims and captivates from the beginning to create a classic in its own right.
Through clever use of narrative and the replaying of scenes from differing perspectives, he manages to show the various points of view early on without ever feeling over elaborate or repetitive. While Dario Marianelli’s magical score sustains the tension just as impressively, basing many of his compositions around a typewriter beat, to emphasise the relevance of the machine in the ensuing events.
But if the first act sets the scene in brilliant fashion, then the second offers nothing short of a tour-de-force. The war-time sequence, in particular, manages to contrast beauty and pain to stunning effect, culminating in a quite breathtaking five-minute tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk that follows Robbie and his beleaguered colleagues as they stagger through the chaos and devastation. It’s a virtuoso moment to rival the likes of Scorsese and De Palma at their very best and which really serves to underline Wright’s special credentials.
And as if to underline the point, Wright then seeks to trump himself with a final act that devastates in a different kind of way, focusing on the older Briony (now played by Vanessa Redgrave) as she brings the story to a close in suitably reflective fashion. It’s an acting master-class from the veteran that puts the icing on the cake of a superb all-round experience.
Of the other cast members, James McAvoy once again shines as Robbie, balancing the cockiness of youth with the fear and desperation of war. He is, without doubt, one of Britain’s finest young actors.
While Knightley rises to the challenge of a very interior role even if her character, Cecilia, appears a bit too icy at times. Both Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai are excellent in their depictions of the various ages of Briony.
If there’s a niggle, it’s that the stiff upper lip attitude of many of its upper-class characters might frustrate early on and prevent an immediate emotional connection – but Wright works hard to earn our sympathy so that there probably won’t be a dry eye in the house come the closing chapter.
Atonement is therefore a magnificent achievement from a remarkable director that could well figure prominently when it’s time to hand out the awards.
Running time: 2hrs 3mins
UK DVD Release: February 4, 2008
- Read the Atonement online book
- Buy it (HMV Exclusive)
- Buy it (HMV)
- Buy it (Amazon)
- Buy it on HD DVD (Amazon)
- Read the review
- Keira Knightley interview
- James McAvoy interview
- Joe Wright interview
- View Atonement photos
- Richard Attenborough Film Awards opt for Atonement
- Atonement triumphs at Golden Globes
- View Atonement at the Venice Film Festival photos
- Buy the novel