Every word that is spoken is meaningful and carries with it importance and weight.
It is difficult to say what Atonement is "about." True, it is a love story and it does involve deception, lying, faith and dedication, but it is hard to summarize the essence of the film aside from simply explaining the basic plot. The beauty of the film and resonance that it creates within the viewer is a subjective experience for each person who witnesses what takes place on the screen.
The film begins in England in 1935 at the estate of the wealthy Tallis family. It starts with the youngest Tallis, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), completing her first play at the age of 13. Seeking immediate approval, she shares it with her mother, Emily (Harriet Walter), and her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), who barely gives it a full read-through. The play is in honor of their older brother coming home after being gone for quite a while. Leon (Patrick Kennedy) has brought home with him a good friend and chocolate magnate named Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The film allows the audience to experience certain events from different perspectives, a luxury the characters unfortunately do not share. Briony witnesses an encounter between Cecilia and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), family friend and son of the maid. Briony thinks her sister has been harassed or offended, when in fact the scene lays the groundwork for feelings to grow between the two acquaintances who realize they have been missing something. Later, Briony walks in on another encounter between the two, assuming it to be an attack that leads her to the crime she ultimately commits, changing the lives of the three characters irrevocably.
Jumping ahead five years, we see where Briony, Cecilia and Robbie are as World War II has broken out. Occasionally reverting back to the past for a new viewpoint, the film continues to manipulate time and perspectives, making every moment seem almost unreliable or impossible and therefore more important.
As I mentioned previously, the film will mean something different to everyone; each viewer will walk away with a different feeling and idea of what they saw. This is the magnificence of the film. Every person will watch the exact same events, but everyone will identify or connect with a different character and sympathize with their ultimate end.
The beautiful cinematography of Seamus McGarvey and the direction of Joe Wright make Atonement one of the most visually stunning films of the year. The characters float through a world that seems not entirely real, yet one that is familiar. The non-linear style and point-of-view storytelling heighten the suspense and mystery of what lies ahead for the characters.
The acting is excellent all around. Knightley appears comfortable and confident in the skin of Cecilia, a girl who quickly grows into a woman. She can burn a hole through someone with her eyes or make someone fall in love with her. McAvoy is reserved through the first half of the film, but undergoes a substantial change and the transformation is conveyed in every inch of his face and every movement he makes.
The script, adapted by Christopher Hampton from the novel by Ian McEwan, involves no extraneous dialogue for the characters, no pointless banter. Every word that is spoken is meaningful and carries with it importance and weight. No other film this year has been able capture the nature and fragility of relationships more accurately than Atonement. | Matthew F. Newlin