The score of Atonement haunts me. Its theme—romantic but foreboding, emotional but restrained—is undergirded throughout by the percussive beat of a typewriter: keys clicking, typebars striking paper, carriage shuttling home. At first, the effect might seem mannered, even over-literal, but it sets a mood of disquiet, and as the film unfolds, its meaning becomes apparent.
That orchestration is beautifully characteristic of the movie’s artistry. The aesthetic choices often call attention to themselves—we notice the painterly framing, the slippery sense of perspective, the evocative set pieces—but none of those choices is arbitrary, existing solely for its own sake. Rather, each lends itself to the storytelling to create a strikingly cinematic realization of novelist Ian McEwan’s literary prowess.
Screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright faithfully adapt McEwan’s award-winning novel. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, lonely and unsupervised on her family’s country estate in prewar England, witnesses her older sister, Cecelia, together with Robbie, the university-educated son of a family servant. Too young to fully understand what she has seen and overheard, Briony reaches the wrong conclusions and makes a fateful accusation, shattering not only the lives of Cecelia and Robbie but her own life as well, as the consequences of her actions haunt her when she matures enough to realize what, exactly, she has done.
McEwan can be a cold, cerebral writer, but Briony is a vivid, exquisitely human character, and it’s a thrill to see her brought to life by young Saoirse Ronan, who memorably captures Briony’s existence in the murky space between innocence and experience. Ronan’s Briony is sharp and shrewd yet so vulnerable; her squeak upon discovering Cecelia and Robbie in the library is pitifully bewildered. Romola Garai plays Briony in her late teens, and she, too, has a compelling presence.
It is Garai who shines in one of those perfectly crafted set pieces: a scene in which Briony, now a nurse-in-training at a London military hospital, is called to sit with a dying French soldier slipping in and out of lucidity. Garai’s Briony still carries some of the mousy nervousness of her younger self, but we also see how her imagination has grown more empathic. As Briony struggles to find her words, the story looks forward, anticipating its revelations with delicacy and heartrending grace, and Garai makes room for the layers of meaning with her quiet, intuitive performance.
Atonement is an odd, segmented novel, and it yields an odd, segmented film, sweeping across a momentous period in history—notably the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk—yet ultimately concerning itself with a small, intimate story. The scenes on the foggy French coast are extraordinary, but they aren’t epic, in a Saving Private Ryan kind of way. They take in the chaos, the magnitude of what’s happening, only so that we can understand the experience of a single individual.
I read the book years ago, so in watching the movie’s final scene, I experienced none of the shock and confusion I felt when I first read the final few pages of McEwan’s novel. But although the end of the story has the form of a big “twist,” it has more resonance that: surprise isn’t necessary to give it weight (especially when Vanessa Redgrave is the one delivering it). Redgrave gazes directly into the camera, speaking McEwan’s elegantly simple words, and then Dario Marianelli’s magnificent score swells one last time, washing away what might have been contrivance with its beauty and sensitivity and the spark of poor Briony’s imagination.