Keira Knightley and James McAvoy have worked in conventionally pleasing costume dramas such as Pride And Prejudice and Becoming Jane. It was only a matter of time until both would end up cast opposite each other in a period piece. Atonement is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. Austen and McEwan are two of the most celebrated authors, yet they are dramatically different from each other in terms of their work. Joe Wright’s cinematic interpretation of McEwan’s story serves for a refreshingly candid period film, a film that captures the raw blistering emotions of desperation and betrayal.
It is the summer of 1935 and Cecilia (Knightley) has just come down from Cambridge. Robbie (McAvoy) has strong feelings for her but the only thing standing in their way is Cecilia’s upper class snobbery. They can’t deny their attraction to each other but their romance begins awkwardly and tumultuously. It is in this tumultuous quagmire that Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is caught up in. Her twisted interpretation of events forces Cecilia and Robbie to part in tragic circumstances.
There is no doubt that this film has once again reignited the debate surrounding adaptation. Some fans of the book will be pleased with this filmic attempt and some won’t. Atonement is a story that is aware of the power of perception. Some scenes are viewed through Briony’s eyes and those same scenes are revisited through the eyes of Cecilia. Each time these little simple events are interpreted differently. It makes you question the function of viewing. Not just viewing, but reading, participating and taking part in life. Every person witnesses something and interprets it in his or her own way. Wright’s technique of repeating scenes acknowledges the depth of the multilayered narrative in the novel.
The effective enhancement of sound takes us into the world of each character. The clack clack of the typewriter and the roar of the buzzing bee is unquestionably the soundtrack to the young Briony’s perception of the world around her. On the other hand, the lovemaking scene between Cecilia and Robbie is accompanied by an uncomfortable silence. No romantic soundtrack here. The silence acknowledges the unspoken name of their relationship.
Such flourishes make it a strong first half. The second half almost abandons the perceptive technique established earlier on. I half-wished that there would be no war and that we could go back to that hot summer in the mansion. But it is this almost unwanted change of direction that succeeds in creating a sense of longing for those hot summer days of comparably uncomplicated youth. The main sequence of the war segment is a hugely impressive lengthy one-take shot showing all the soldiers and other people vulnerably trying to be strong and just, well, dealing with it. In his letter to Cecilia, Robbie speaks of clarity of passion. Well, this whole one-take sequence shows the clarity of passion, as well as the clarity of vision, and the clarity of filmmaking. You see everything at once. And you understand everything at once.
It is splendid to watch a film tackle the theme of ambiguity with such clarity. For that you can thank McEwan, Wright, Christopher Hampton (screenplay) and Seamus McGarvey (photography). James McAvoy gives a powerfully quiet and commanding performance. Keira Knightley suits her role immensely and seems more comfortable here than in her previous films. The two young actresses who portray the role of Briony, Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai, stand out with their subtly expressive faces. Ronan, in particular, has the kind of face that you can write any kind of emotion on.
The epilogue makes for a weak and rather wishy-washy ending. It can be forgiven though as the ending is more for Briony’s sake rather than ours. Through her childish error, she finally faces some sort of redemption. As she carries on clacking away on her typewriter, she admits that she changed the ending in her latest novel to make herself feel more at peace.
Which brings me to end this piece with a question: Is what we see, always true?