Director: Joe Wright
Cast: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave
Watch Atonement online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“I wanted to tell the absolute truth. No rhymes. No embellishments.”
Clicks and whirrs from a typewriter herald the second feature from Joe Wright, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s excellent best-seller Atonement. The instrument belongs to Briony (Saoirse), a 13-year old know-it-all who longs to be a writer. On the hottest day of the year, 1935, she stops typing. She has finished her play. Then, she witnesses something from the window; an incident between her sister Cecilia (Knightley) and gardener Robbie (McAvoy). In her naivety, Briony misunderstands what she sees, her actions having a severe impact upon the couple.
McEwan’s novel, like most of his work, is very literary in nature. A romance refracted through meta-fiction, the real theme of his prose is the act of writing itself – hardly a cinematic subject. Yet Wright creates a sumptuously shot version of events. Using flashbacks to great effect, the film’s opening act introduces the idea of conflicting perspectives. As the lovers’ romance blossoms, the colours intensify, the oppressive heat radiating off the vibrant grounds of the Tallis family’s Victorian mansion.
Inspired touches are elsewhere, too. A monumental tracking shot through the beaches of Dunkirk is spectacularly immersive, epitomising the bleak tone of the second act. We see soldiers playing football, drinking merrily, and collapsing to die in the sand; all the while a male choir sings Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. At once both impressive and heart-wrenching, the screenplay offers us no comfort from the chaos of war – the worst of the novel’s pain is still to come.
Briony (Romola) is now a trainee nurse in London, treating the war’s wounded in an attempt at penitence. Romola Garai continues the arc of her character with a mournful air, her age bringing an awareness that was absent before. Writing letters to Cecilia, also a nurse, she begs for a meeting. But as Cecilia pines for her would-be husband, her forgiveness remains elusive.
Christopher Hampton’s script successfully transposes McEwan’s hefty content to the screen, managing a smooth transition into the characters’ adulthood. The cast are all excellent, from McAvoy’s optimistic eyes to Saoirse Ronan’s young innocent. But the queen of them all, it turns out, is Vanessa Redgrave. Playing successful author Briony, she looks into the audience with piercing blue eyes, conveying a range of emotions with the slightest facial movement.
Atonement’s stylish camera-work is complemented by the soundtrack. From gushing fountains to echoes of gunfire, sound envelopes us completely, Dario Marianelli’s score allowing the noise of the typewriter to blend with the staccato strings. When the theme of writing comes into its own at the striking third act, the clicks and whirrs finally fall into place. Distilling McEwan’s novel without diluting its potency, this masterful adaptation is a work of genius.