Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in Atonement (2007)


(director: Joe Wright; screenwriters: from a novel by Ian McEwan/Christopher Hampton; cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey; editor: Paul Tothill; music: Dario Marianelli; cast: James McAvoy (Robbie Turner), Keira Knightley (Cecilia Tallis), Harriet Walter (Emily Tallis), Romola Garai (Briony, 18), Saoirse Ronan (Briony, 13), Vanessa Redgrave (Briony, in old age), Brenda Blethyn (Grace Turner), Juno Temple (Lola Quincey), Felix von Simson (Pierrot Quincey), Charlie von Simson (Jackson Quincey), Patrick Kennedy (Leon Tallis), Benedict Cumberbatch (Paul Marshall), Michelle Duncan (Fiona Maguire), Gina McKee (Sister Drummond), Daniel Mays (Tommy Nettle), Alfie Allen (Danny Hardman); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Tim Bevan/Eric Fellner/Paul Webster; Focus Films; 2007-UK/USA)

“Assuredly directed PBS type of arthouse film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This period romantic drama is based on Ian McEwan’s 2001 introspective novel of injustice due to a malicious lie. Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice”) has a knack for adapting literary works to the screen and proves that once again with this assuredly directed PBS type of arthouse film; the film is also helped by the smart screenplay by Christopher Hampton, the excellent performances by the ensemble cast and the high production values.

Warning: spoilers in the next two paragraphs.

It opens on a hot summer day in 1935 on the splendidly opulent Surrey country estate of Emily Tallis (Harriet Walter), who lives there in a Victorian mansion with her imaginative aspiring writer thirteen-year-old daughter Briony (Saoirse Ronan) and her 23-year-old Cambridge-educated daughter Cecilia (Keira Knightley). The only son Leon (Patrick Kennedy), also a graduate from Cambridge and an affable chap, brings along for a home visit his millionaire friend, Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is heir to a large chocolate factory and has secured a lucrative deal with the army if they go to war. Also visiting from up north are the Quincey cousins–Lola (Juno Temple) and the young boy twins Pierrot and Jackson (Felix and Charlie von Simson). Briony has a schoolgirl crush on the handsome Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son, who also just graduated from Cambridge thanks to Cecilia’s father paying his tuition because he feels sorry for the lad whose father died when he was young. The working-class Robbie now plans on moving up the social ladder by enrolling in medical school and hopes the Tallis family will give him a loan for tuition, which he plans to pay back.

Robbie and Cecilia are madly in love, even though they have a slight misunderstanding by the water fountain. Robbie writes a tender note of apology for that incident, but playfully describes her private part in a risque way. He has Briony deliver the note to Cecilia, who is displeased that sis read a note she wouldn’t understand at her tender age. Later that evening Briony catches her sis making love with Robbie against the bookshelves in the library. In a jealous fit, mistakenly thinking Robbie is a seducer of women after misinterpreting the love note and now this scene in the library which she takes as a violent sex act. Later that evening when the adolescent Lola gets raped and can’t identify her attacker, Briony witnesses it and determines it was Robbie even though it was Paul. On her testimony alone, Robbie is sent to prison. In 1940, he’s allowed to go free if he fights in the army. Before shipping out he meets Cecilia, who has now distanced herself from the family and lives alone in London as a nurse. Cecilia promises to wait for Robbie until the war is over, as he gets shipped out. Robbie is part of the troops who are retreating at Dunkirk, but dies of a broken heart before the rescue on the beach. The now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) forgoes Cambridge to work as a nurse at St. Thomas hospital (doing a penance for lying and ruining an honorable young man’s life–for a wrong she says she’s only beginning to understand) and is ready to admit she made a mistake in accusing Robbie but never gets the chance, as Cecilia dies a few months after Robbie in a London bombing raid. Briony reveals her dark secret when she’s an old guilt-ridden lady (Vanessa Redgrave) dying from a stroke and has written her 21st and last book, where she tells all in an autobiography that is given the title Atonement. But the author tells the true story in a fanciful way by making it a happy renewal for the star-crossed lovers on the beach at Dover so that they can experience some literary happiness that was otherwise denied to them in real life, as if the writer can atone for her real-life foul deed through her art.

It’s unmistakably British, veers off in a far too traditional middlebrow way in its storytelling to entirely appeal to me, its take on class status is too superficial to mean much and is a little too mushy for my taste; but it was well done, has a fine score by Dario Marianelli that picks up the sounds in the house (like the clanging of the typewriter) to create an enticing effect and if you care at all for this genre and its simplistic schematic love story–it’s probably worth a look.