Class politics, epistolary confusion, girlish infatuation, a world war and a youthful misunderstanding that leads to disaster form the crux of Atonement. Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) is a young man who works on the Tallis family estate, keenly observed by the Tallis sisters. The older, Cecilia (Keira Knightley) attended college with Robbie, where she ignored him for four years, while the younger, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is not-so-secretly in love with him. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, the film focuses on the intertwined lives of these three characters, shifting between them seamlessly, with little warning.
The story begins at the Tallis estate. Briony is writing a play, Robbie is working in the yard, and Cecilia is lounging inimitably. Robbie breaks a vase. Cecilia becomes upset, and they argue. What is clear to everyone is that they are not arguing about the vase at all. Later on that day Robbie, moved by various passions, drafts two letters to Cecilia. One is polite and the other less so. The latter prominently features one four-letter word in particular. Of course, Robbie sends the wrong one, and its contents, combined with some unfortunate circumstances, lead to Robbie’s unjust imprisonment, just as he and Cecilia have expressed their love.
These events are first seen, imperfectly, from Briony’s perspective. The film then rewinds and unfolds once more, allowing the audience to watch the same events once again with omniscient eyes instead of the obscuring lens of one little girl’s perspective. This circular storytelling repeats twice, with a coda which calls into question much of what has gone before.
But, the preeminence of Briony’s version of events within the film is telling; the slow revelation of this film is that it is as much an apology as a love story. Until its end we believe that, although they are separated by jail and war, Cecilia and Robbie’s love endures. By the credits this is no longer so certain. In what is either — depending on your perspective — a neat trick or an annoying and dispiriting rug-pulling, it becomes clear that the film’s subject is both the story and the telling of the story itself. The truth is a constantly shifting thing, depending on who’s doing the telling. If that sounds frustratingly oblique, I apologize, but to say more would be to give away the whole shebang.
Along with its love story, Atonement is a film dealing with (oddly enough) one character’s atonement, through a sort of revision of fact into fiction. However, it is not only ambitious thematically, but visually as well. The mundane has no place here; every shot is filled with intricate details or grand vistas. Even the French countryside in the middle of wartime seems picturesque. Of all these incredible images, the most impressive (though perhaps not most compelling) is the tracking shot through the beach at Dunkirk, where Robbie and his fellow soldiers arrive after chaos has already set in. They wander through the crowd, smoke still rising in the distance and the camera follows, wading through images surreal and horrifying. Though gripping and impressive in its execution, the camera work is not so unobtrusive that it allows the audience to become invested in what is being shown on-screen. You can almost hear the director (Joe Wright) saying “Hey, look at what I can do!” as the camera glides among the wreckage.
With an unconventional approach to plot and a flair for striking visuals, Atonement is an exceptional film, though not an easy one. It is a complicated and somber picture to be grappled with and enjoyed in equal measure.