Christopher Hampton adapted Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize nominated novel about the power of a lie. Hampton has three decades of experience and it shows in his screenplay. The book isn’t easy to adapt. It’s not a straight forward romance but is built on scenes where the point of view shifts dramatically. At one moment we see one character’s interpretation of an event then we shift to another so that we don’t immediately know which view is real. Joe Wright is best known for his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which starred Keira Knightly who is also the leading lady in Atonement.
It’s the summer of 1935 on a peaceful English estate. But things are anything but peaceful in the fertile imagination of 13 year old Briony Tallis, Saiorse Ronan, a budding writer. She’s trying to stage her latest play using lazy cousins and her efforts aren’t going well. Briony has a crush on the son of one of the household maids. Robbie Turner, James MacAvoy, is educated at Cambridge and is ready to go onto medical school. Briony’s sees her older sister Cecila, Keira Knightly, strip down to her underwear to go into a fountain, seemingly, in Briony’s eyes, forced in some way to do this by Robbie. We find out in anther scene she went into the fountain to retrieve a piece of a broken vase. This begins the series of events that trigger Briony to misinterpret everything she sees in relation to Robbie. This is compounded by a mistakenly sent obscene letter written by Robbie and given to Briony to hand deliver to Cecilia.
When Briony sees the pair in the library consummating the love they’ve just come to realize they feel for each other, Briony is sent into an emotional tailspin. She’s now convinced more than ever that Robbie is a sexual predator. When she sees her cousin Lola being sexually assaulted she convinces herself and Lola that Robbie is the rapist. Robbie is convicted because of Briony’s lie.
Fast forward to the early says of WWII and we now are focused on Robbie who has enlisted to get an early release from prison. He reconnects with Cecilia in London where she’s become a nurse, tending to the wounded. They are determined to rebuild their love and their lives that were torn apart by Briony’s lie.
Robbie ends up in Dunkirk where the British army is cornered, waiting for evacuation. An exhausted and ill Robbie clings to his memories and his hopes for the future as he awaits the evacuation.
We now are focused on Briony, grown up and also a nurse, she is beginning to grasp the terrible damage her lie has inflicted upon Cecilia and Robbie. It’s here, tending to the wounded and the dying that she begins her quest for atonement. Her quest for atonement will continue throughout her life.
The film garnered numerous award nominations and several wins in a variety of categories:
San Diego Film Critics Society Awards: Best editing: Paul Tothill
American Society of Cinematographers, USA: Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases: Seamus McGarvey
Art Directors Guild: Feature Film – Period Film: Sarah Greenwood
BAFTA: Best Film of 2007
Golden Globe: Best Dramatic Film 2007
Satellite Awards: Best Screenplay: Christopher Hampton
Venice Film Festival: Prize of the Forum for Cinema and Literature: Joe Wright
Why It Was Nominated
It’s lush and beautiful, but the beauty is artfully used as an idyllic backdrop to the coming storm of disasters that await the characters in their last peaceful summer of 1935. The adaptation by Hampton is a true accomplishment for a screenwriter. The book isn’t easy to work with, but he adapts it perfectly. Joe Wright’s direction brings out the best in his actors, particularly James McAvoy as Robbie and Saiorse Ronan as the young Briony. His most stunning set piece is Dunkirk in which he captures the heartbreak of that moment in history, making it all the more immediate because of the audience connection with Robbie. It’s a breathtaking and emotionally moving film that never succumbs to manipulation to pull the audience in or to move the audience to tears.
The musical score by Dario Marianelli, who scored Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, is excellent with the tap tap tap of a typewriter underscoring the film’s message of the power of words to damage and to heal.
Why It Might Win
It’s a gripping and well made film that respects its literary origins. The film has the epic sweep the Academy loves, the star crossed lovers, the horrors of war and the tragic ending. But it never becomes stale, stiff or trite. The film also boasts great cinematography, direction, screenplay and performances. The notable exclusion in its seven Oscar nominations is Joe Wright who wasn’t nominated for direction but should have been. A film and a director really are one.
The film without a doubt deserves the Best Picture Oscar it’s nominated for. It could pull off a win based on the quality of the film and splits in the voting between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood which appear to be the front runners. I can see the Coen brothers pull a best director Oscar and Atonement actually take the Best Picture prize. It’s the kind of straight forward film epic film making that Oscar loves to reward.