Fledgling writer Briony Tallis, as a 13-year-old, irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister’s lover of a crime he did not commit. Based on the British romance novel by Ian McEwan.
Year 2, Film #54
THE REVIEW: What starts out as a bad case of first-world, rich white-girl problems quickly devolves into a very mysterious and troubling story about how one girl’s testimony irrevocably alters the lives of many. Atonement is by far one of the most gripping and thought-provoking films out there that effortlessly plays with time and perspective, takes advantage of showing not telling, and has a powerful score that makes your skin crawl.
Atonement focuses on three main characters — Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and one of their housekeepers Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) — and a specific interpretation of events that isn’t all what it seems to be. The beginning of the film is very peaceful and idyllic, in addition to many complaints from Briony because her cousins are being less than cooperative in helping to put on the play she just finished writing (hence my initial thoughts of first-world problems). But very soon after Briony’s character and the setting is established, the film begins to play with both time and perspective. As a whole, the film is broken up into a handful of chunks dealing with times before, during, and after World War II. The chunk that deals with time and perspective the most is this beginning part of the film.
One of the biggest advantages books have over films is their ability to show multiple perspectives; take a scene and describe what’s going on from the point-of-view of two different people who may not even be in the same room but looking on from afar. Atonement found a way to do that with film and it involves playing with time and showing a scene twice. There are two key scenes in this opening chunk on which the entire film is based, both involve Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie. The first is the fountain scene. Briony looks out the window in her room and sees Cecilia and Robbie by the fountain outside. What starts as just a pleasant walk quickly escalates and Robbie approaches Cecilia, Cecilia then takes off her clothes, dives into the fountain, gets out, and then storms off. As this happened, one of the first thoughts in my mind was, “I want to know what actually happened out there. I want to see it from Cecilia’s perspective.” Sure enough, the next scene rewinds and starts from the beginning only from Cecilia’s perspective. Everything happens exactly the same only instead of looking from 100 yards away through a window, we’re outside by the fountain able to hear everything that’s being said. The second example happens in the library where Briony walks in on Robbie making love to her sister. Right after that, we rewind yet again and see everything leading up to that moment from Cecilia’s point-of-view and we learn that things are not always what they seem.
This experimentation with time and perspective gives the film a very mysterious feel to it. At all times we have to question what we’re watching as to whether or not it’s biased or not. Are we seeing things first hand or are we experience them from afar? I likened this experience to books and mentioned that it’s not something we typically (or ever) see in films, but in Atonement it works. A big reason why this is successful is that the film really shows instead of tells. While we do hear some interpretations from the characters — there’s a scene where Briony is talking with her cousin Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) about what she saw at the fountain — we’re also allowed plenty of time to interpret things for ourselves. This same scene at the fountain which we see for the first time from Briony’s perspective, lasts about two minutes and has no dialogue. It is purely shot, reaction shot of the Cecilia and Robbie at the fountain, and Briony in her room. We see everything that Briony sees but we’re forced to interpret what’s happening ourselves rather than being told right away. This delayed gratification also adds to the mystery of the film as we are never quite sure what really is going on. We’re always waiting to find out what the “truth” is which can only happen, we think, after we see both sides of the story.
Another major contributor to this sense of mystery and all-around dark and foreboding tone in the film is the score. Before watching the film I looked up it’s nominations for the Academy Awards and noticed it won Best Score and was intrigued. No more than five minutes into the film I could see why it won. Typewriters are heavily featured in the film given the time period and the characters. Briony loves to write a lot and Robbie is also seen writing a letter to Cecilia. The score incorporates these diegetic sounds and remixes them into music. This musical typewriter, despite what you may think, is anything but comical and is quite ominous. Not all the music is created this way though, some tracks are more “traditional” in that they’re recorded with an orchestra but these two also have the same uneasiness to them that keeps you on your toes and also somewhat frightening.
Atonement is a standout film that really raises the bar in many ways. The way director Joe Wright creates this story in establishing characters and actions from different perspectives and through altering time turns this period drama into a full-blown mystery. Throughout the entire film we’re always left guessing not only what will happen next, but second guessing things that we’ve already seen take place. It’s a terrific cast along with beautiful cinematography and an inventive score that embellishes the tone and feel of the film. And the ending. While not quite Inception-like in terms of questions left unanswered, the ending to Atonement certainly leaves you thinking not necessarily about what happened, but what the repercussions are of what happened. A very close contender with Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men (I do think the Coen’s narrowly beat Atonement here, but just barely) and a film that you’ll want to watch at least a second, if not third or more times.
THE RATING: 5 out of 5