10 Years On: The Potent Poignancy of Atonement’s Dunkirk Scene

The movie's five-minute-long, single-take centerpiece is a potent anti-war tableau and a masterclass in the logistics of filmmaking.

Dunkirk Atonement Mcavoy

The movie’s five-minute-long, single-take centerpiece is a potent anti-war tableau and a masterclass in the logistics of filmmaking.

Joe Wright’s Atonement gave us many things: a new leading man in James McAvoy; twelve-year-old Saoirse Ronan’s extraordinary, Oscar-nominated performance as the devastatingly naive Briony Tallis; that stunning green dress showcased by Keira Knightley’s Cecilia; and, to my mind, one of the most spectacularly cinematic adaptations of a novel we’ve had yet. This feat is no better exhibited than in the portion of the metanarrative movie set in Dunkirk, where McAvoy’s lovesick and wounded Robbie Turner is forced to retreat by advancing German forces. Filmed by camera operator Peter Robertson in one long Steadicam shot, and with photography being directed by Seamus McGarvey, the scene is both a technical flourish and an intoxicating culmination of the movie’s chief leitmotifs that makes perfect use of the unforgettable pathos of Dunkirk.

As Nonso Anozie’s Frank Mace remarks, there’s an element of the biblical in the first glimpse we get of Bray-Dunes beach; one that it shares with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Lines of men snake across the sand like a single-file re-enactment of Noah’s Ark, an image that echoes that of the film’s opening scene in which Briony’s toy animals form a static procession across her bedroom carpet. Like Dunkirk’s soldiers, these men in Atonement are focused solely on survival, quietly waiting for savior ships that aren’t even visible on the horizon yet. The scene takes place just a few days into the operation to evacuate when Allied troops were resigned to dejection, believing that the war was over for them. Despite what we know now, a rescue was not yet certain at the time in which the scene is set, since the Luftwaffe had just destroyed Dunkirk’s harbor from the air, and German ground forces were still a very real threat at just 50 miles away.

Despite the uncertainty of their being rescued, though, the queuing troops’ actions aren’t illogical, and neither are those of the dutiful soldiers we see disabling artillery and vehicles to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. In this image, reflective of obedience and obligation and shared by both Dunkirk and Atonement, there is a military quality: all activity is orderly, rational and solely devoted to defense, whether personal or national.

Atonement Dunkirk Establishing

But whereas Dunkirk focuses its energy on such single-mindedness, Atonement’s interests lie elsewhere. Almost as soon as we get that first look at the survival-inclined occupants of the beach, the illusion is shattered, and the chaotic world concealed by that initial establishing shot is revealed. Robbie descends onto the sand to investigate, sounding the starter pistol for the five-minute-long, unbroken tracking shot that forms the thematic junction of the film.

At once, we’re thrown into a living nightmare; a scene teeming with so many sights – bizarre, disturbing and routine – that the result is a picture of Dunkirk that perfectly conveys the discordant effect of war. There are, as mentioned, the devoted soldiers and patient men; those who entrust that most British of institutions – the queue – with all their hopes for survival. Overwhelming the latter’s pragmatism in greater numbers, though, are those for whom the idea of getting out of Dunkirk alive and sane has become inconceivable. Driven to the edge of the land by German forces, the Allied troops are faced with a vast, impassive sea and the knowledge that independent escape is impossible. Worse, they are totally at the mercy of German aerial bombs, since there is no British air cover (as a naval officer, played by Tobias Menzies, attests to). A beached London barge sits center stage and serves as a stark visual reminder of the unreliability of rescue-by-sea, leading many of the men to see their predicament as hopeless.

Much of the scene’s piercing pathos comes from these soldiers; those for whom the fight-or-flight impulse has stalled at the unavailability of either option. Some are rendered paralyzed by their anguish – like the soldier sitting frozen and trembling, eyes glazed over with a thousand-yard stare – while others convert their instinct to disassociate from the horror into more childlike impulses. The camera’s meandering route across the beach takes us through Sarah Greenwood‘s tour de force production design, introducing us to sights as disquieting as soldiers riding merry-go-rounds, raucously playing pirates on the marooned ship, hollering like cowboys on requisitioned horses, and climbing up Ferris wheels seemingly without caution or care. The eccentricity of the soldiers’ response to their plight is the point, and the poignancy, of Atonement’s Dunkirk scene. As Joe Wright wants to convey here, war is irrational, so why shouldn’t it have the same disorienting effect on those forced to carry it out? The glimpses we get of a group of men running, naked and greased up with engine oil, past a peacefully sunbathing soldier only add to the sense that Atonement‘s Dunkirk is a scene of complete mania and mayhem.

Atonement Dunkirk Boat

Dunkirk might strike as an odd event for the movie (and the novel on which it’s based) to depict since we never actually see the evacuations that would go on to define the occasion. But Atonement isn’t interested in these events because they can (and so often are) interpreted to justify war and rationalize the huge losses that follow. In denying us the chance to witness evacuation, and by presenting the retreating soldiers as utterly shattered, physically and mentally, Atonement’s Dunkirk scene argues by extension that war is nothing more than needless chaos and excessive waste of life. Robertson’s remarkable Steadicam sequence gives us a breathtaking, exhaustive tour of the ruins (architectural and psychological) left by military conflict to evoke in audiences that crushing comprehension that usually comes post-war: that it was all such an unbearable waste.

The sacrifice demanded of the soldiers – of their bodies, their minds, their lives, and their futures – is the scene’s key takeaway, especially when Robbie’s fate is revealed. For this reason, it works perfectly in conjunction with the film’s overarching lamentation, which mourns the waste of life by war; of the chance to reconcile by guilt; of valuable youth, squandered by a wrongful prison sentence; and of innocence.

Ultimately, though, the chief injustice the film grieves for is that its two lovers can never have a future together, because of what happens to Robbie, both at Briony’s hands in England and at Dunkirk. While Cecilia doesn’t actually appear in the long-take, her presence doesn’t go undetected, attached as it is to the image of a beach. In the moments leading up to the tracking sequence, we see her silhouette waiting on the shore of the Eastbourne coast, where (in Briony’s fictional telling) she waits for Robbie to return. The two had planned to elope to a remote cottage on that same beach. Paired with the image of Robbie at Dunkirk that follows, we get a deep sense of the insurmountability of water and the poignancy of beaches; motifs that run throughout the rest of the film. With Cecilia in Eastbourne and Robbie at Dunkirk, the two are within a hundred miles of each other, but their reconciliation is blocked by the element. This is echoed on another level in the same scene: motorbikes and cars lie abandoned on the sand, unable to take their owners any closer to safety, while a makeshift choir stare out at the horizon towards England from a Bray Dunes bandstand as they sing a hymnal that recalls home, taunted by their proximity to it. In Atonement, water is serene and invincible; an unconquerable impediment for everyone. The film’s closing moments tragically bring this realization full circle.

Atonement Dunkirk Horses

Dario Marianelli’s swelling, melancholic score adds to the film’s elegiac essence when it kicks in, precisely at the point at which we see soldiers executing horses no longer required by the retreating Allied forces. Militarily speaking, there’s an explanation for their death – practical concerns meant they couldn’t be shipped home, nor could they be left to bolster the German effort – but Wright is not interested in military strategy. Neither are Atonement’s audiences. This is a human interest movie, although “human” is not meant to exclude, here; the pairing of the horses’ death with the mournful score is included to invoke audience compassion as much as the scene’s other tragedies are.

It would be amiss not to recognize the extraordinary technical work behind this single-take scene, which demanded much from the film’s cast and crew. Tiny cues, imperceptible to the audience, were built into the actors’ choreography to aid the fluency of the shot as Steadicam operator Robertson traversed a quarter of a mile of uneven terrain and height, all whilst carrying tens of kilos of heavy equipment. The movie’s budget only allowed for a single day of filming, but the pressure to get it perfect was even further intensified by the fact that the shoot had to take place in a slim window of time since only sunset could provide the low-tide and perfect lighting necessary for the scene.

To bolster the scene’s sense of authenticity, a thousand extras were recruited to play the soldiers and French refugees (the only CGI applied was to the bombed-out remains of the buildings, which are, in reality, perfectly intact). Everyone involved had to be on perfect beat and in total coordination with one another, a choreographic feat that took three takes to pull off. Robertson’s legs gave out on the fourth take, so the third was used in the film, with the result being one of the most logistically outstanding, visually spectacular and emotionally piercing single-take scenes we have in modern cinema.

Freelance writer based in the UK. According to Lil B, I'm "a true positive spirit - Lil B"