"Atonement" begins on joyous gossamer wings, and descends into an abyss of tragedy and loss. Its opening scenes in an English country house between the wars are like a dream of elegance, and then a 13-year-old girl sees something she misunderstands, tells a lie and destroys all possibility of happiness in three lives, including her own.
The movie's opening act is like a breathless celebration of pure heedless joy, a demonstration of the theory that the pinnacle of human happiness was reached by life in an English country house between the wars. Of course that was more true of those upstairs than downstairs. We meet Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), the bold, older daughter of an old family, and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), their housekeeper's promising son, who is an Oxford graduate, thanks to the generosity of Cecilia's father. Despite their difference in social class, they are powerfully attracted to each other, and that leads to a charged erotic episode next to a fountain on the house lawn.
This meeting is seen from an upstairs window by Cecilia's younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who thinks she sees Robbie mistreating her sister in his idea of rude sex play. We see the same scene later from Robbie and Cecilia's point of view, and realize it involves their first expression of mutual love. But Briony does not understand, has a crush on Robbie herself, and as she reads an intercepted letter and interrupts a private tryst, her resentment grows until she tells the lie that will send Robbie out of Cecilia's reach.
Oh, but the earlier scenes have floated effortlessly. Cecilia, as played by Knightley with stunning style, speaks rapidly in that upper-class accent that sounds like performance art. When I hear it, I despair that we Americans will ever approach such style with our words, which march out like baked potatoes. She is so beautiful, so graceful, so young, and Robbie may be working as a groundsman but is true blue, intelligent and in love with her. They deserve each other.
But that is not to be, as you know if you have read the Ian McEwan best seller that the movie is inspired so faithfully by. McEwan, one of the best novelists alive, allows the results of Briony's vindictive behavior to grow offstage until we meet the principals again in the early days of the war. Robbie has enlisted and been posted to France. Cecilia is a nurse in London, and so is Briony, now 18, trying to atone for what she realizes was a tragic error. There is a meeting of the three, only once, in London, that demonstrates to them what they have all lost.
The film cuts back and forth between the war in France and the bombing of London, and there is a single (apparently) unbroken shot of the beach at Dunkirk that is one of the great takes in film history, achieved or augmented with CGI though it is. (If it looks real, in movie logic, it is real.) After an agonizing trek from behind enemy lines, Robbie is among the troops waiting to be evacuated, in a Dunkirk much more of a bloody mess than legend would have us believe. In the months before, the lovers have written, promising each other the happiness they have earned.
Each period and scene in the movie is compelling on its own terms, and then compelling on a deeper level as a playing out of the destiny that was sealed beside the fountain on that perfect summer's day. It is only at the end of the film, when Briony, now an aged novelist played by Vanessa Redgrave, reveals facts about the story that we realize how thoroughly, how stupidly, she has continued for a lifetime to betray Cecilia, Robbie and herself.
The structure of the McEwan novel and this film directed by Joe Wright is relentless. How many films have we seen that fascinate in every moment and then, in the last moments, pose a question about all that has gone before, one that forces us to think deeply about what betrayal and atonement might really entail?
Wright, who also directed Knightley in his first film, "Pride and Prejudice," (2005) shows a mastery of nuance and epic, sometimes in adjacent scenes. In the McEwan novel, he has a story that can hardly fail him and an ending that blindsides us with its implications. This is one of the year's best films, a certain best picture nominee.
Animal figurines are lined up in a row, as if they are following a ray of light streaming in from the window. They are found to lead up to a giant 13-year-old Briony Tallis, her face obscured as she is furiously typing away at her desk. The staccato tapping of her typewriter leaks into the piano keys of Dario Marianelli’s moody score and Atonement begins.
Ten years on from this major adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel, and with director Joe Wright revisiting World War Two in his next film, Darkest Hour, it seems as good a time as any to revisit Atonement. A story of a young couple torn apart by fate, war and a little girl’s misunderstanding. The emotional punch doesn’t come from the devastating romance, the false accusation or even the war backdrop but from the sound, or lack thereof.
The transition at the beginning of the film is not just a clever piece of sound mixing, but a reference point for Briony’s restlessly imaginative character. Wright conveys the narrative not through dialogue, not through the acting but through the soundtrack. Whenever we hear the typewriter through the rest of the film, we know it means Briony. It means her lies.
Guillermo Del Toro once insightfully observed that, “the look of a movie is a table of four legs. One is of course cinematography, but the other three are wardrobe, set production design and direction.” Continuing this inspired line of thought, it’s fair to say that the emotion in a movie stands on acting, music, editing and dialogue. When one falters, the emotional impact is diminished. Wright seamlessly ties in all of these elements to contribute to the emotional arc at the forefront of every frame.
A perfect example of this is the scene in which Robbie (James McAvoy) realises he gave Briony (Saoirse Ronan) the wrong note to pass on to Cecelia (Keira Knightley), handing over an anatomically indulgent version rather than the formal one intended. Wright states on the director’s commentary that, “one of film’s greatest assets is its potential for rhythm.” Rhythm not only established by the sound, but its cooperation with editing and movement.
When Robbie first calls to Briony from the distance, Wright leaves us waiting in real-time for her to reach him and before he passes over the fatal letter. This long pause is then counteracted by the speed in which she runs away with it, and the familiarly rapid staccato notes begin to play. Through the music Wright is warning us that a pivotal point in the film is coming up. We are reminded of the girl’s restless imagination and the foreboding danger of colliding it with something so adult as an erotic love letter.
And so, the unfortunate series of events leading to the separation of Robbie and Cecelia are put into place. All stemming from a “fanciful” girl not understanding what she sees. We begin to hate the sound of the typewriter, Briony’s staple sound and all it represents. The childish fiction has become cruel lies. Her capricious words are death sentences. In turn, we detest the premise of storytelling as a whole, and the storyteller along with it. Wright beautifully manipulates our emotions and riles them up into a frenzy of hatred towards a little girl.
In a pivotal scene at the very end of the film, an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) decides to finally tell the truth and reveal the artifice in her story. As opposed to the character’s introduction, her face dominates the screen as if looking directly at the audience. While she speaks, her definitive sound is replaced by the ‘Denouement’ track. Literally meaning the finale, it consists of long, low, sorrowful notes in contrast to the rapid staccato of the piano.
Briony is seeking atonement. Replacing her erratic fascinations with the bleak truth. The sorrowful sounds of her redemption brings the audience face to face with their accusation as this decrepit figure asks, “What sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that?” Now, the truth is unwelcome because it holds the tragic injustice of reality.
The interplay of all the music with the themes of the film demonstrate a far more potent, visceral involvement that exercises the tools of filmmaking to their fullest. On a level playing ground, the rhythm of the music, editing and acting all coalesce to project the emotional impression of the scene onto the audience. Atonement is an orchestral symphony, with the director as the conductor stringing all the elements of filmmaking into a harmony of cinema.
Published 22 Jul 2017
Tags: James McAvoyJoe WrightKeira KnightleyWorld War Two