Atonement review: Heartbreaking Yet Thought Provoking

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Spoiler warning

I remember watching atonement way back in 2008, few days before the academy awards. I was so sure that this movie will sweep all the major categories including best picture. When Joe Wright directorial lost out to “No country for old men”, I thought to myself, “either no country for old men is a great film or the academy seriously needs a proper revision in their tastes”. How I hate it when the latter assumption ends up being correct. Atonement is undoubtedly one of the best love stories I have watched in the last decade. At the same time, it is one of the most disturbing films because it deals with a major issue people go through, sexual assault, false accusations and the effects of war on relationships.

Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a budding and talented writer who prepares a well-polished script for a play as a part of her brother Leon’s (Patrick Kennedy) homecoming celebrations. She has a very warm relationship with her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy), son of their maid. Robbie and Cecilia have feelings for each other and Briony witnesses several situations that her 13-year-old mind wouldn’t comprehend instantly. Like, seeing Cecilia standing half-naked in front of Robbie and witnessing them having sex in the library. Then, a despotic situation occurs and Briony falsely accuses Robbie who is convicted and imprisoned. Years later, Briony realizes her mistake and tries to rectify the best way she could while Robbie and Cecilia, try to mend their relationship but face the biggest obstacle that may tear their relationship apart for good, war.

Kudos to Joe Wright for bringing a totally different tone to the silver screen and watching atonement was like witnessing a whole new experience. Wright had undoubtedly spent months maybe years planning and circulating the plot along with his direction style. The cinematography captured the life before and during the war. Earlier, a yellow tint is used to show the golden family life the Tallises were leading along with the romance between Robbie and Cecilia. The quick editing has transcended the emotion undertones. Like one of Robbie’s dream sequences where visuals go backward, indirectly implying how Robbie wished that he could take back everything he did from giving Briony the letter and accidentally breaking Cecilia’s vase.

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Director explains the whole context in DVD featurette, there are facets that we are yet to come across. After the twins ran away from the house, the whole family sets out to look for them. During the search, Briony witnesses a man assaulting her cousin Lola (Juno Temple). She is convinced that it was Robbie and even managed to say the same to Lola who revealed that the assaulter covered her eyes and she didn’t see his face. Without any hesitation, Briony talks to the police saying that it was Robbie. The family welcomes Robbie with a face of disgust yet surprised as he is the one who eventually found the twins. As per the following sequences, 18-year-old Briony remembers what she actually saw and wasn’t really surprised by the revelation. So, why did she accuse Robbie? Did she go wrong or did she do it on purpose? Robbie remembers a time when he rescued Briony from drowning and she is shown to have done it as a dare; she wanted to see if he will rescue her or not. She has a crush on Robbie and has been jealous of his relationship with Cecilia. Maybe, she wanted to purposefully punish him but then came to know it no less than a crime after “growing up”. We start taking mature decisions after 18. Briony is shown to have had an epiphany during Lola and Paul Marshall’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) wedding, where she remembers him as the real assaulter. Did she know all along that it was Marshall? The amount of emotions transcended is immense in the million dollar scene where Briony visits a married Robbie and Cecilia, asking for an apology. Her actions cannot be rectified on words alone but then it is too late.  Perhaps she did but as an angry 13-year-old, who was rejected by the man she loved, she wanted to “trap” Robbie and prevent him from having her sister. So not only she accused an innocent man but she also let the real culprit get away with what he did. Before she could come anywhere close to making things right with her sister or Robbie, both of them ends up dead due to the drastic consequences of war.

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Direction wise, I have never seen anything like atonement. The best facet of this masterpiece is definitely the characters and Joe Wright extracted the best performances. James McAvoy deserves everything that came his way and he brought Robbie into life. We could identify with his emotions whether it is love for Cecilia or anger towards Briony. I was surprised to know that McAvoy didn’t get an academy award nomination, competition these days. This is the one movie we could point out while talking about Keira Knightley’s skills. The way she reacted when Robbie was taken away by the police is on point and she also nailed the scene where she angrily shoves her sister’s dry apology away. My favorite person is Vanessa Redgrave who delivered a haunting performance in spite of having less screen time. That what great actresses do. I just wished that she received the Oscar nomination instead of Saoirse Ronan. Ronan is admirable notably during the dinner sequence where she scorns at Robbie and Cecilia as she caught them having sex, but her performance wasn’t just as soulful. Romola Garai presented a different version of Briony. She is more grounded and realistic who comes in terms of what she did and the consequences were so drastic that she has to live with that for the rest of life. Although Briony is introduced in an antagonistic manner, we feel sorry for her and it also makes us think. This is the first movie of Benedict Cumberbatch’s I saw and I remember thinking “this guy has an amazing voice“. He delivered the layered nature his character needed especially in the scene where he insists Lola to “bite” the chocolate he gave her through his teeth. Perhaps he lusted her and tried to rectify it later on by marrying. Or, they did having feelings for each other and both of them chose to remain silent. The script gave more openness for the audience’s assumptions. Dario Marianelli’s music is all that is needed for the film’s to highlight its message. The title track “Briony” has the sound of a typewriter enhancing her role as a writer and therefore is always lost in her thoughts. Her mind works like a typewriter and the whole movie is actually what elder Briony remembers.

Atonement is a must watch film for cinema lovers. I watched it several times just to witness Joe Wright’s spectacular vision which is completely different from the family classic scenario in pride and prejudice.

5/5

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