Joe Wright | 2hr 3min
Perspective is a tricky, volatile thing in Atonement, fuelled by the whims of an individual’s fickle biases, yet wielding the power to manifest as reality and change the course of entire lives. Some are inherently more valuable than others too, especially given that the word of a young girl speaking to a subject as weighty as sexual assault is inherently treated with more gravity than the man she is accusing. Perhaps rightfully so, though it is hard to ignore how their disparate class backgrounds might have something to do with the ease with which the blame is pinned on him. Joe Wright studies the eyes of 13-year-old Briony Tallis in extreme close-up, catching the piercing blue of her irises and her sharp, perceptive squint, but these are also the vessel through which he interprets the apparent guilt of Robbie Turner, the son of her family’s housekeeper, thereby setting in motion a cascade of heartbreaking misfortunes.
Beyond Briony’s subjective experiences though, there is another story closer to the truth which clears up our confusion. Robbie’s interactions with her older sister, Cecilia, aren’t nearly as scandalous as they appear when we are given the full context of their romance, and throughout the first half of the film Wright delights in nimbly shifting between his and Briony’s points-of-view. Almost as if a reset button is being hit, multiple scenes play out twice over in succession, constantly challenging our own beliefs about whether Cecilia’s dip into the fountain was as erotic as it looked from a distance, or whether the shocking sight of her and Robbie splayed out across a bookshelf was actually rape. It is a stroke of formal genius from Wright to structure his narrative in this way, alternating between misunderstandings and reality, so that by the time Briony witnesses the brutal crime committed against her cousin, Lola, we can simultaneously understand how justified she feels in her accusation, and how completely wrong she is.
Saoirse Ronan is a revelation here at the young age of 12, delivering a performance that stands among the strongest any child has put to film, even while only taking up half the full screentime. It makes for an interesting comparison when we leap years into the future and see Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave take over the role, as even though we can see the mounting guilt on their faces, neither come close to capturing the heartbreak of Ronan’s bitter immaturity. As she faces up to the adults in the room and asserts her false conviction, we can see the wheels spinning fabrications in her mind, quickly turning “I know it was him” into “I saw him with my own eyes.”
Aside from being an innocent child and the daughter of wealthy parents, perhaps it is also Briony’s knack for storytelling which earns her the trust of others, allowing her to exert influence over their minds. As a child, she writes plays on her typewriter, and Dario Marianelli’s urgent rhythmic score of strings and piano skilfully works its percussive keys in like a constant reminder of her ability to produce destructive propaganda as easily as she can create imaginative fairy tales. Often paired with this persistent tapping is some surprisingly sharp editing too, breaking up Wright’s long, elegant takes with cuts that feel like abrupt disturbances inside Briony’s confused mind.
For the most part though, Atonement’s visuals are a brilliantly virtuosic display of the floating camerawork and lavish production design that Wright debuted two years earlier in Pride and Prejudice, crafting some delicate compositions out of pre-war British period décor. On sunny days before everything goes to hell, reflections gently ripple in ponds and pastel wallpapers form backdrops to Briony’s innocence, languishing in the excitement of her crush on Robbie. The four-year leap into the future does not dispense with this exquisite beauty, but the colours are just that little bit darker and more melancholy, situating us in the hospitals and battlegrounds of World War II. Robbie’s early release from prison comes with the caveat that he joins the British army, and although the two sisters have taken up nursing in London, there is a wedge driven between them which cannot be reconciled.
Though the narrative urgency falls away a little at this point with dreams and flashbacks taking over, Wright’s visual style continues in vivid expressions of longing and regret, poured out most evocatively in the five-and-a-half minute long take navigating the beach of Dunkirk where Robbie finds himself stranded. As a symbol in European history, this famous event represents great hope, though as we run over a hill and the masses of soldiers come into view, all we can feel is the sort of despair one faces at the end of the world when all options are exhausted. Eventually, this shot detaches from Robbie and continues to explore the bleak setting on its own, watching men camp, sing hymns, put down horses, and play on rides left over from some nearby fair. A Ferris wheel looms far away against a golden sky at magic hour, but with smoke filling the air, there is no joy to be found here. The only film that captures this moment in history with as much sorrowful beauty is Dunkirk itself, but even that opts for an entirely different kind of artistic magnificence with its exacting montages and epic IMAX photography.
Meanwhile, the incriminating tapping of Briony’s typewriter continues to underscore her storyline in the harsh, sterile wards of St Thomas’ Hospital, where nurses walk down green hallways in symmetrical formations and tend to wounded soldiers. Reflecting on the shame of her false allegation, her flair for lying takes a more redemptive turn when one patient with a head injury mistakes her for his wife, and while on his deathbed, finds comfort in her presence. Even into her old age it remains her defining character trait, with Wright eventually pulling out a double twist – she has been the narrator of this story, and as a result, her trademark fabrications are riddled throughout it.
In an ideal world, Robbie and Cecilia would be reunited after the war, and Briony would come forward with the truth to clear his name. They might still hold her in contempt and even go on to sever ties with her completely, but simply putting things right would be enough to set her mind at ease. Like all those who believed her the first time around, we are completely fooled into thinking that her version of events is the truth, without considering her ulterior motives – in this case, the desire to create her own fantasy redemption. Robbie’s death at Dunkirk on the last day of evacuation and Cecilia’s drowning in the London Blitz may still be on her conscience, but there is certainly at least some poetry in her using the same gift which denied them full, happy lives to immortalise them in history as committed lovers beating all odds. Whether that’s enough for genuine atonement is the provocative question that Briony may never find an answer for, and in Wright’s bold, ever-shifting structure, we too find it eerily winding its way all through this formal puzzle of lies, truths, and alternate perspectives.
Atonement is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.