Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Saoirse Ronan, Juno Temple
Director: Joe Wright
Available on: Netflix
The intertwining taboos of class and sex run through meridians of Atonement, Joe Wright's heartbreaking and achingly beautiful adaptation of the seminal novel by Ian McEwan.
Wright's vision is a sumptuously crafted meditation on the treacherous mercuriality of the English caste system, as well as a tragic tale of the friction between the adult realms and late childhood precocity.
Keira Knightley and James McAvoy occupy the nominal starring roles yet it is Saoirse Ronan who excels as the story's anchor character, Briony Tallis, narrator, antagonist and repentant sinner. Armed with an air of watchful curiosity and that burrowing stare, Ronan is a revelation. She elevates Briony from frivolous younger sibling to herald of woe with the merest flicker of an expression, placing her actions somewhere in the grey space between deliberate and naive. Played out over the course of the picture's opening act, hers is the fire burning most destructive.
The setting is an English country estate in the stifling summer of 1935. Aspiring writer Briony, older sister Cecilia (Knightley) and housekeeper's son Robbie Turner (McAvoy) pass the time in the exquisite grounds of the Tallis manor, the latter pair having recently graduated from Cambridge. When, from a bedroom window, Briony witnesses a moment of sexual tension — the culmination, one suspects, of years of furtive glances and suppressed feelings — between her sister and Robbie (the object of her own girlish affections), she misconstrues the exchange. She fixates on a vague version of reality, her juvenile mind assailed by events she barely comprehends, and, in doing so, seals the fates of those in her orbit.
Wright delivers the fatal emotional punches. He creates a work of tonal dichotomies; its initial stages are lusciously captured in rich pastoral shades and infused with a sultry ambience. However, a strangely frenetic pace drives it forward, more than one character finding an outlet in the thumping certainty of a typewriter. One scene in particular, a passionate tryst in a darkened library, is masterfully constructed, at once violent and romantic, ripe with tension, desire and whispered ecstasy, its execution lent extra potency by the wildly divergent ways in which the moment is interpreted by the players.
From here, Atonement gives way to something far bleaker: an often graceful war-time elegy of how destinies can pivot on even the smallest of cruelties. The stand-out sequence is an astonishing depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation. Robbie, now transported to the battlefield, is pitched into an anarchic circus of military ill discipline.
Instead of blasted heaths, the men of the British Expeditionary Force sing and squabble, booze and brawl among seaside carousels and bandstands. In a single five-minute shot, Wright follows Robbie through this dystopian hellscape, weaving between and betwixt the madness: dead horses, beached ships and mangled machinery — the flotsam and jetsam of conflict. In the background, a ferris wheel winds lazily in the fading light.
On the home front, a cowed Briony (now played by Romola Garai) contends with her guilt while working as a nurse in Blitz-era London. Garai capably mirrors Ronan's prim bearing while reaching for redemption wherever she can find it. Hers is a heavy burden that haunts every step.
Briony's future is, of course, indelibly bound up with the happiness of her sister and Robbie. The latter pair eventually settle on some kind of mutual understanding as Hitler's advances erode the social stratums and both McAvoy and Knightley turn in powerful performances fuelled by rage at a future upturned. Knightley's usual cut-glass confidence wavers in the face of the charismatic Robbie, whom McAvoy's skills render not only edgy, but inherently good.
They are ably supported by Juno Temple, as teenaged Tallis cousin Lola, and Benedict Cumberbatch, a chocolate magnate armed with crap marketing slogans and a quietly leering interest in the coquettish adolescent. Theirs is a coupling that conjures a grubby chemistry very much at odds with the central dynamic, although it is no mere sidebar.
An extended coda sees Vanessa Redgrave inhabit Briony's ageing shell, old wounds and offences drawing the life from her eyes, leaving only cynicism where once there was raw remorse. No action, after all, is ever free of consequence but truth need not be the master of what is right.