In love and war
Atonement is so good, and so engrossing, some viewers may not even notice that right smack in the middle, director Joe Wright pulls off an astonishing technical tour de force. Wright’s camera follows Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the male member of the film’s trio of central characters, as he stumbles dazed and feverish around the beach at Dunkirk in the midst of the chaotic British evacuation in 1940. In one amazingly long, unbroken shot, Robbie wanders among the remnants of a shattered and panicky army as it cowers in a sort of frenzy, destroying equipment and shooting horses that must be left behind, desperate to get off the beach before Hitler’s Wehrmacht can deliver the crushing blow. The “miracle of Dunkirk,” when over 300,000 French and British soldiers were successfully evacuated from the continent, became a silver-lining morale-booster for the Allies, but Wright’s astonishing long take (it seems to run more than five minutes) gives us a gut-level view of what a horrifying and near-run thing it was. It’s a scene that will be studied in film classes for decades.
Long before that, though, Wright and his writer Christopher Hampton (adapting Ian McEwan’s novel) have hooked us on the problems of three little people in this crazy world. The movie opens five years earlier, on the hottest day of a long and sultry summer, at the country estate of the wealthy Tallis family. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a primly precocious girl with dreams of becoming a writer, has completed a seven-page play to be performed by her three cousins (sheltering with Briony’s family from their parents’ ugly divorce) in honor of her brother Leon (Patrick Kennedy), due up from London that day with his friend Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch).
But something makes Briony lose interest in her play. From her bedroom window, she observes a scene between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis’ housekeeper. As Briony watches perplexed, Cecilia, radiating defiance even at that distance, strips off her dress, plunges into the courtyard fountain, and emerges dripping wet in clinging underthings, like a haughty Venus on the half-shell. Cecilia strides past the unmoving Robbie, who is visible to Briony only from the back. Whatever they may have said, of course, is inaudible at that distance.
We see a replay of the scene that explains the incident to us, but Briony never does understand it, and her feelings are roiled by her affection for her sister and her childish crush on Robbie. Later events, some springing from that moment, others not, lead Briony to an act of jealous, impulsive malice—she accuses Robbie of raping her fifteen-year-old cousin. As the bewildered Robbie is hauled away, Briony’s family calls her a brave little girl—all except Cecilia; Briony is lying, and on an instinctive level Cecilia knows it.
Five years later, as Britain girds for the dire struggle with Nazi Germany, Robbie has been released from prison to serve in the army in France. Briony (now eighteen and played by Romola Garai) is a nurse’s aide, serving in London in the same area as Cecilia, now a nurse. But the two are estranged, Cecilia refusing to have anything to do with her sister since that night in 1935. For her part, Briony knows her own guilt, and wonders if there is anything, ever, that she can do to make amends for the terrible damage she has done.
The way this sad, wrenching story works itself out has its unexpected touches, and it would be a disservice to hint too broadly at them here. The gist of this richly textured, deeply moving film is that very few mistakes can be corrected, but we do what we can, when we can. Atonement is redolent of pain and loss, yet ultimately there’s a sense of healing to it that is somehow uplifting, as Briony does … well, too little too late, perhaps, but still, what she can. This moment is delivered through a graceful, unexpected cameo by Vanessa Redgrave, and everything about it—even the casting of Redgrave herself—is exactly right.
Atonement, for my money, is the best movie of the year so far. I can’t imagine a better one coming along in the next two weeks.