This has truly been the year for sophomore directors. Judd Apatow proved this summer he wasn’t a one-hit-wonder with “Knocked Up,” his follow-up to “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin.” Then Jason Reitman hit it out of the park with “Juno” (his first feature being “Thank You for Smoking”). Now Joe Wright, director of 2005’s “Pride ‘ Prejudice,” has produced the best film of the year, “Atonement.”
Based on Ian McEwan’s 2002 novel of the same name, “Atonement” follows the story of 13-year-old Briony Tallis (played by young actress Saoirse Ronan). Briony is a girl with an incredibly vivid imagination who spends her time writing plays and stories that make her seem like quite the child prodigy. The first half of the film takes place during a hot summer day in the 1930s at Briony’s family’s country house. This is not entirely Briony’s story though, but very much the story of the relationship between Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the gardener Robbie (James McAvoy).
Not too much prologue is given about the relationship between the two but the viewer can presume that feelings between them have been bottled up for sometime, which finally comes to fruition in the family library. Briony witnesses her sister and lover in the act and lets her imagination run wild and later falsely accuses Robbie of a horrible crime. Robbie is arrested and joins the English army from prison once World War II breaks out.
This is where the movie becomes primarily about the love story between Robbie and Cecilia. The second half skips ahead four years and places Robbie in France, as he tries to make his way back to England after being separated from his unit. Cecilia, meanwhile, is living in London, waiting for Robbie. The movie later catches back up with Briony, now 18, working as a nurse. Briony, now with a full comprehension of her actions, finds herself drowning in a sea of guilt for what she did.
The film is technically superb. The cinematography is outstanding, with beautiful shot compositions ranging from a hot summer’s day to a war torn France. The most forefront achievement though is a scene that displays the English army’s evacuation to Dunkirk. The scene (which lasts close to 10 minutes) follows Robbie through an entire beachfront filled with hundreds of soldiers, all of which is captured in a single shot. It is truly an achievement, as the scene is both harrowing and mesmerizing. The musical score also deserves merits for its originality. Composed by Dario Marianelli, the music incorporates key sound effects (notably Briony’s typewriter) into musical themes. It is rather clever and works very well.
Even with all of its technical mastery (writing, music, editing, cinematography), the film’s strongest assets are its performers. The character of Briony, played by three actresses at different ages (Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave), is acted to near perfection. All three actresses (especially 13-year-old Ronan) bring their A-game in representing a very complicated character. Knightley really finds a role to sink her teeth into, as this is by far her best performance. Yet Cecilia, who on paper may just seem like a supporting character, is taken to the level of leading lady by Knightley.
However, the film’s strongest performance goes to McAvoy as Robbie. Most film fans will recognize him as Mr. Tumnus from “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but here he gets to show how good he really is. His character of Robbie represents the best in human nature and will draw the strongest connection with audiences. McAvoy brings to him a sincerity that makes one of the strongest performances of the year. McAvoy is quickly on his way to stardom, and rightly so.
This is a film that works on every level. The first act is arguably the strongest. The scenes at the country house have a great sense of realism and honesty to them; you feel like you are there with the characters (which is very hard to do in a period piece).
Joe Wright’s masterful direction gives “Atonement” the sweep of an epic but the scope of a deep and personal character drama. It is a brilliant and moving story that will pull at your heart-strings and leave you shaken by its ending. Don’t be surprised to hear its name a lot come Oscar time, it is the best of the year.