Writer: Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan)
Cast: Keira Knightley (Cecilia Tallis), James McAvoy (Robbie Turner), Saoirse Ronan (Briony Tallis, 13), Romola Garai (Briony Tallis, 18), Vanessa Redgrave (Briony Tallis, 77), Harriet Walter (Emily Tallis), Patrick Kennedy (Leon Tallis), Brenda Blethyn (Grace Turner), Juno Temple (Lola Quincey), Benedict Cumberbatch (Paul Marshall), Danny Mays (Tommy Nettle), Nonso Anozie (Frank Mace) & Anthony Minghella (The Interviewer)
Period romances are not my cup of tea, as most are restricted by audience expectations – riffing on Dickens or Austen to produce yet another boy-meets-girl yawnathon with class division thrown in. So imagine my surprise when Atonement (director Joe Wright's follow-up to Pride & Prejudice), proved itself a pleasant diversion -- managing to spin an old-fashioned tale in a surprisingly modern way...
Wright's "muse" Keira Knightley plays Cecilia Tallis – a posh, waif-like piece of totty for boyishly handsome Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), son of the Tallis family's housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn), whose privilege education is being paid for by Cecilia's father.
Cecilia and Robby are spending the summer of 1935 at the Tallis country estate, with Robby gardening the grounds, joined by Cecilia's family – including 13-year-old budding-writer Briony (Saoirse Ronan) – and family friend, chocolatier Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Unfortunately, it would ruin the film's early enjoyment to discuss and dissect the events that causes Cecilia and Robbie's romance to end – but suffice to say it involves a succession of misunderstandings by precocious Briony, a letter-writing mistake by Robbie, and a heinous act by creepy Paul. It all results in Robbie's imprisonment and fall from grace...
Atonement starts as a comfortable upper-crust romance, quickly snaking into sinister territory, then blossoms into a small-scale war film – as Robbie is given his freedom 5 years later to fight in World War II. Before leaving for duty, Robbie's re-acquainted with Cecilia (now a nurse), and the film divides its time between Robbie's experiences in war-torn France, and an 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) -- now working for the nursing corp in London, looking after injured soldiers. And, in the intervening years, Briony has begun to realize the pain she caused sister Cecilia might have been based on a terrible mistake...
Keira Knightley isn't the best actress in the world, but she has the perfect face and mannerisms for period drama. She's effectively plummy and winsome as Cecilia, but not revelatory, and her character is unfortunately pushed into the background once Briony's story begins overtaking the narrative.
As the Brionys; young Saoirse Ronan does well with her smaller appearance, but I really enjoyed Romola Garai's performance as the late-teen version, and Vanessa Redgrave does marvellously with a tiny role as the elderly Briony.
But it's James McAvoy who most impresses, in a film that manages to transform him into a 1930s poster-boy – complete with impeccable accent and an engaging air of stiff-upperlipped decency. The supporting cast are all perfectly fine, but I was disappointed to see Cumberbatch's insidious role given short-shrift.
I have to avoid mentioning a few key moments of the film, but Atonement eventually takes a bold twist in its final reel that pulls the rug from under you – immediately fixing a few storytelling problems, whilst acting as quite a fun jolt to proceedings.
All in all, I have to applaud the way things ultimately "resolved" themselves, but Atonement's storyline still irritated me in one central regard: that Briony's ending of Cecilia and Robbie's relationship could so easily have been explained! It was just too circumstantial and silly in my opinion – especially the brainless way Robbie accidentally has a rude love-letter delivered to Cecilia. One word: contrived.
But it's a relatively small concern in a film that engages and entertain every step of the way, blessed by Wright's keen eye for well-composed landscape shots (check out the romantic White Cliffs of Dover) and an acclaimed one-take journey around Dunkirk. You really can't fault the film too much on a technical level, and it looks beautiful throughout. The soundtrack and sound design is also of very high quality.
Overall, Atonement is ultimately very touching, well-performed, entertaining, impressively filmed and reaches a satisfying and thoughtful denouement. You have to suspend your disbelief as the plot conspires to split love-birds Cecilia and Robbie, but the film doesn't suffer too badly. If not quite as faultless as some say, as far as "period romances" go – this is definitely in the upper echelon, and a marked improvement for Wright after Pride & Prejudice.
Budget: $30 million
PICTURE: 1.85:1 | SOUND: DTS / Dolby Digital 5.1