What do you do if you are wracked with guilt and lack the courage to confess to those you have hurt? If you're a celebrated writer, you can purge yourself by creating an autobiographical novel…just leave a little wiggle room to say it's fiction when confronted.
This is the essential conceit and conundrum behind "Atonement," the highbrow film version of the Ian McEwan novel, which holds to the same Masterpiece Theater pedigree.
Directed by Joe Wright from a Christopher Hampton adaptation, the story opens on an elegant British country estate in 1935, where the sound of typing is ever-present. Why? Because precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is knocking out a play, which she is going to impose upon her visiting young cousins. Meanwhile, her beautiful older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightly), is furiously flirting with Robbie Turner (James McAvory), the handsome son of one of the servants, Grace (Brenda Blethyn). Courtesy of Cecilia and Briony's father, Robbie is enrolled in Cambridge University and heading to medical school.
However, Briony also has eyes for the smooth servant son, becoming incensed when she sees Cecilia and Robbie cavorting at the fountain and in mid-coitus against the library book shelf. Also fueling the teen writer's imagination is a profane love note between them, which Briony reads while delivering it.
Convinced that Robbie is a "sex maniac," the 13-year-old points her finger at him, when her same-aged cousin is raped one night in the woods.
His life ruined, Robbie is arrested, but soon finds himself in France during World War II, opting for the Army over jail. Separated from his division, he winds up on the beach during the disastrous Dunkirk retreat.
Cecilia and Briony are both serving as nurses, with the older sibling estranged from her family and still pining for Robbie, as the now-age-18 younger sister (Romola Garai) wrestles with her great guilt. After witnessing the agonies and atrocities of war, the girls and Robbie make amends in what seems to be a happy ending.
But not so fast. In a contemporary coda, elderly famed writer Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) reveals that what we have seen is the narrative of her last and final novel, which is autobiographical… up to a point. This is where the story's conceit/conundrum comes in. Audiences will either buy it or they won't. Apparently, the Golden Globe officials did, awarding "Atonement" seven nominations.
Majestically photographed by Seamus McGarvey, the film features sensitively superb acting, with Knightly and McAvoy making tragic romance in the best Hollywood tradition. The story jumps around in time, but Wright manages to keep confusion to a minimum. A tracking shot in the Dunkirk sequence, which would have awed Orson Welles, puts the film on an historical epic level.
"Atonement" is a complex movie about lies, youth, love, guilt and the nature of the novel, in terms of truthtelling. See it if you want a feast for your eyes and food for thought.