The power of words, the questioning of received wisdom, and the reasons behind a recurring porcine motif were all on the table when I talked with James McAvoy and Joe Wright about ATONEMENT on November 28, 2007. They were by turns philosophical and whimsical while discussing how to use naughty words in an elegant film, filming the retreat at Dunkirk, and performing an impromptu duet.
ATONEMENT is as close to perfection as mere mortals can aspire to. This translation to the screen of the Booker Prize-winning novel by Ian McEwan flawlessly captures the complex and powerful play of emotions that propel the story while annotating it with a visual component that amplifies rather than distracts.
The plot hinges on what happens when, on the hottest day of an English summer at the stately Tallis castle, 13-year-old Briony Tallis, views private scenes of an adult world and lacks the capacity to absorb what has transpired. Those scenes play out between her snobbish and selfish older sister, Cecelia (Keira Knightly) and Robbie (James McAvoy), the easygoing and effortlessly charming son of the family housekeeper, sent to Cambridge with their money, and who through his own pluck and merit, is on the verge of a future that is so bright it almost blinds the mind’s eye. What Briony sees is beyond her ken, and, coupled with a sense of betrayal fueled by her crush on Robbie and the childish incapacity to understand the consequences of her actions, she tells a lie that will eventually ruin all their lives. The tragedy of the story is not World War II, nor the estrangement of the sisters, but rather Briony’s eventual realization not just of what she has done, but that there is nothing that she can do make it right. No apology can compensate for the suffering she has caused, no action can undo the bitterness of the lives, hers included, irrevocably blighted by one impetuous action.