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.
The script by Christopher Hampton remains faithful to the novel, but it is the caliber of the performances coupled with preternaturally sensitive and intelligent direction by Joe Wright that pierces the heart and then makes it unexpectedly ache for all three. It is the insistent, unsentimental compassion that it evokes for Briony (Romola Garai as the adult Briony) that conspires to irresistibly that makes this such an startling, emotionally charged experience that forces the audience to contend with nothing less than the nature of justice itself in this imperfect universe.
Garai is stoic with a palpable undercurrent of desperation. Knightly is brittle and passionate, carrying throughout the film the same sense of discomfort with the disorder that the distinctly un-upper crust savagery of her emotions has wrought, from the longing for the housekeeper’s son during the indolent summer, to the avenging angel she becomes when he is wronged. McAvoy is the stuff that romantic dreams are made on. A slave to the woman he loves, but not her fool, buoyed by an optimism that is reflected in the way he walks, the sly mischief of an inopportune love note, and the open smile that sums up his sense of joyful contentment with what the world offers. It’s that smile that later becomes a heart-rending shadow of itself, as he clings to Cecelia’s promise to wait for him to return from the war, and a life that will never be what it could have been.
This a sumptuously realized work, from the elegance of a country estate, to breathtaking tracking shots over the French beach where the Allied retreat is being staged, the sense of futility of a evil of the Axis powers and that of Robbie’s fragmented life becoming each a metaphor for the other. But there is more than mere dazzle at work. There is a brilliant use of almost subliminal sound cues to explore the otherwise invisible inner life of these characters. The tapping of typewriter keys becomes part of the musical score. The buzzing of a fly summing up the frustration of a hot day and ill-tempered companions as it also draws Briony to a window where she sees, but does not hear, Robbie and Cecilia having a vigorous conversation that ends with Cecelia stripping to her underclothes and leaping into the water. Visual cues are just as strong, adding to the sense of chance that leads to disaster, with Cecilia’s hairpin sparkling innocently on a carpet, all but pointing to the library door, which Briony enters at precisely the wrong moment. Each of these moments revisted from another point of view, from another reality, and the difference, child and adult, is so deftly realized that each is a shock to the system and equally true for the character doing the viewing.
ATONEMENT is a film about flawed characters, but no villains except a class system that ends up betraying them all. Haunting, visceral, and beautiful, it is as challenging as it is indelible, as beautiful as it is maddening.