Through the eyes of a child…
A jealous teenager misunderstands her sister’s actions with her lover leading to events that will change their lives.
Atonement Official Trailer #1 – Brenda Blethyn Movie (2007) HD, Movieclips Classic Trailers
I was in the mood for a great sweeping romantic epic movie that I could lose myself in for a few hours, wallow in the love story and sob at uncontrollably. Looking at the choices… these included Titanic (1997) or Gone with the Wind (1939), I dismissed both of these immediately. The former is a film where I get bored easily with the fictional love story and the gratuitous amount of CGI, so that wasn’t on my radar. And the other just recently reviewed.
In the end, I plonked for the terribly British film, Atonement (2007). Set in England in 1935, 13-year-old wannabe writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) lives in a huge country house with her upper class family, mother Emily (Harriet Walter) and sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Her big brother Leon is due to visit for dinner, so she has written a play for his homecoming. She shows it to the housekeeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy) and he says he hopes to see it and her mother who believes Briony’s play is “stupendous”.
Briony enrols her 15-year-old precocious cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and her wee twin brothers to participate in her play. They join the rehearsals grudgingly, as the twins have more exciting things planned. Lola insists that she has the leading role and Briony insists she directs. These cousins are staying with the Tallis family while their parents divorce.
Meanwhile, Cecilia is outside with the family’s housekeeper’s (Brenda Blethyn) working class son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). He was at Cambridge University with Cecilia and hopes to study to become a doctor. These both funded by the Tallises father. Since then Cecilia has had little to do with Robbie as she tells her wee sister they are now “in different circles”.
Cecilia has an argument with Robbie and they jostle and he accidentally breaks the heirloom vase she is carrying. He shouts at her to be careful of the broken pieces as part of the vase falls in the water. It sinks and Cecilia undresses to her underwear, then dives in and retrieves it from the fountain. Briony witnesses this event from her bedroom window. She jumps to the wrong conclusion, as she believes that he has forced her sister to undress for him.
Leon visits his family and he has brought his friend, Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), the son of a chocolate-making magnate to join them for dinner. Robbie writes a letter to Cecilia to apologise about the vase incident, but he first writes a raunchy letter full of sexual content where he writes of his strong affection for her.
He then sets off to join the Tallis family for dinner. He gives the letter to Briony to give to her sister after he spots her on the grounds. As soon as she runs off, he realises that he has given her the sexually charged letter, and he shouts at Briony not to read it.
Not hearing him, Briony has already reached her home and she reads the letter. Then she gives it to her sister, Cecilia knows her sister has read the letter as it isn’t in its envelope. Meanwhile, Paul visits the cousins in their room and talks with the twins. He appears a bit inappropriate and flirty with Lola.
Lola visits Briony’s room and complains of her brothers hurting her wrists. Briony confides about the contents of the letter with Lola and the two teens believe Robbie to be a “sex maniac”. Robbie arrives at the Tallises and apologises to Cecilia for the letter’s content.
However, Cecilia tells him she is in love with him. They make love in the library. Briony, on finding a hairclip with a silver star belonging to her sister, notices the light on in the library. She interrupts the lovers and on seeing them she believes Robbie is raping her sister. And she stands there shocked and crying.
At dinner, there is a strong attraction felt between Cecilia and Robbie, and Paul shows more interest in Lola. Briony discovers the twins have left a note saying they have run away and the family, Paul and Robbie go looking for them in the dark.
Briony discovers Lola apparently being raped by a man near the creek. After he quickly leaves the scene, Briony is convinced it was Robbie. Lola says her eyes were covered so she is unsure of his identity, and Briony shows her mother Robbie’s letter. This belief that Robbie is the culprit is added to after her mother reads the content of the letter and it is given to the police.
Briony tells the police she saw Robbie raping Lola and this is not challenged by her cousin. Robbie returns to the house having found the twins and he is promptly arrested. Briony is sent to bed, His mother and Cecilia are the only ones who strongly believe in his innocence. Cecilia is devastated, as Briony watches him being put into the police car from a window and her sister’s reaction.
Four years later, Robbie has joined the army (and was released from his prison sentence on the condition that he do this) and is recruited to fight in the Battle of France. Before he leaves, he meets with Cecilia who is now a nurse in London. Cecilia tells him has not seen her family since his arrest. She has broken her ties with them because they did not support Robbie. After this catch-up, they reunite as lovers.
Cecilia and Robbie kiss passionately and he promises to return to her after the war, as he wants to love and marry her. They make plans to stay at her friend’s cottage by the sea when he comes home and promise to write to each other. During his time at war, he is spurred on by the thought of reuniting with Cecilia.
Briony (now Romola Garai), is now 18 – but still writing – has started training as a nurse. She feels repentant for her childhood actions. She is writing a book telling about her sister’s love story with Robbie. Briony tells a close nursing friend, Fiona (Michelle Duncan) of her childhood “crush” for him. She says she loved him after he saved her after she jumped into a lake, but then he shouted at her.
Briony then goes to a family wedding, as Lola is marrying Paul Marshall, now a chocolate factory millionaire. Sitting alone in the church, watching them wed, it gets to that all-important line, where you can speak up on why they should marry… and Briony then remembers the events of that night when Robbie was arrested…
This film took a non-linear approach and often showed the same scene from different characters perspectives in key scenes. These scenes showed the views of events as interpreted by Briony’s young imagination and the reality of events. Real and Briony’s imagined interpretations are also seen showing how Briony misunderstood the events she observed from the window. The other situation shows events from Cecilia and Robbie’s side regarding the events in the library and the story from Briony’s perspective.
During the war scenes, more of the characters’ stories are seen by flashback by the three main characters. Robbie reflects on the events that brought him to the war and the contents of this flashback scene, are recounted differently as Briony talks about the same event with Fiona. Flashback scenes about the fateful night he was arrested are also seen and Briony also recalls the identity of the rapist by flashback.
Briony’s youth and innocence are emphasised within the script and reinforced by props used in the film. Her youth I believe was shown in the contents of her room full of model animals, her need for reassurance about her play from her mother and in her childish behaviours with her cousins. Her childhood fear in the darkness when she looks for her cousins seen as she misinterprets things from their normal possibly due to her young imagination. These scenes perhaps suggesting she is in the dark about the truth of things.
Her innocence shown as she wears a white (virginal) dress at the dinner party and as she loses her childhood innocence it is suggested as she drops her torch, on discovering the rape. Her finding of the fallen jewellery, a star also suggests that her image of her sister or Robbie is now tarnished.
Briony’s young age is also emphasised with many scenes shown from her then small height. These seen in the opening scenes which also as she comes from an upper-class background. Ronan was a young twelve years old during filming and she gives a strongly ambiguous performance of this character.
After she reads the letter and seeing her with the man she has a crush on leads to her believing and imagining that Robbie is a rapist when he sees him with Cecilia in the library. This might be out of fear for her sister, anger at Robbie for not paying her attention or an innocent mistake. It may also be that she imagined events rather than reality due to her age.
The film was nominated for seven awards and won with the musical score composed by Dario Marianelli. This music innovatively adds the noise of a typewriter while this prop is used in scenes. This typing is also heard during the scenes as Robbie writes the letter. Other notable nominations included Best Picture and Best Costume Design. Special praise went to Keira Knightley’s green dress (as seen above). These costumes were recreated with research into this time and place.
The scenes of Robbie at the beaches of Dunkirk are terrifically recreated. These scenes evoke the experiences of the British servicemen as they waited for transport to return from Dunkirk, and you hope for his return to Cecilia.
On seeing the over a thousand extras, the World War II props, this cinematography and a continuous scene showing Robbie’s plight makes a stirring contribution to the movie. Robbie’s part in the war and his presence at Dunkirk is a heartbreaking scene that you feel he may have avoided had circumstances been different.
Atonement is defined by Oxford Languages as “the action of making amends for a wrong or injury”. This film ends with an imagined scene that you, like others had longed for.. and those of reality you dreaded. These come with a fucking horrible twist. But, as a viewer and one time reader of this book, now in tears, I do want this wrong to be righted.
Weeper Rating: 😦😦😦😦😦😦😦😦😦😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂/10
Hulk Rating: /10
A Midsummer Dream Blogathon 2021, No 17
This review was added to A Midsummer Dream Blogathon run by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Other reviews with this cast include Benedict Cumberbatch and James McAvoy in Starter for 10. Saoirse Ronan in my guest review of Words Seem out of Place’s I Could Never Be Your Woman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Keira Knightley stars in Love Actually and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Michelle Duncan stars in Bohemian Rhapsody. Vanessa Redgrave stars in Murder on the Orient Express.