I haven't read Ian McEwan's 2002 book on which Atonement is based, so speaking from a strictly cinematic standpoint, Atonement is a stunning work of film. The story is told efficiently and with an eye toward capturing both the romantic beauty of the English countryside as well as the frightening cruelties of war. The winning combination of a tight script and brilliant direction by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) pretty much makes everything else fall into place. The device of shuttling back and forth in time keeps things interesting, piquing our interest as to cause and effect (i.e. if this happens in the future, what happened in the past to cause it?). The performances are solid — particularly James McAvoy's, but mostly on the part of the women playing Briony at various stages in her life — though the actors most likely benefited greatly from such assured direction.
The story spans several decades, beginning in 1935 at the posh estate where Cecilia's (Keira Knightley) family lives and where the son of the housekeeper, Robbie (McAvoy), while still slightly removed because of his class, has mostly become a part of the family. Just as he and Cecilia begin to act on their attraction toward one another, Cecilia's young sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony) accuses Robbie of a heinous crime he did not commit, and he is sent away. Choosing military service instead of prison, Robbie is serves in World War II, and though he and Cecilia continue to love each other, their lives are never quite the same. As for Briony, the guilt of her mistake haunts her throughout her life, though she tries to achieve atonement through her writing. That's just the plot, though, so
My favorite aspect of the movie is this: The story's action is often accompanied by the rapid click-clack sound of a typewriter, a constant reminder of a moment that changed everything, as well as the sound that exemplifies Briony's means of seeking redemption. The most clever thing about this is when this clacking actually becomes the film's score, a rhythmic drumbeat that provides an accelerating pulse to the visuals. It not only makes the action seem more frantic and intense, it starts to sound like music, a tune of desperation.
The way the story unfolds by jumping back and forth in time works well to keep an audience riveted. I was so immersed in these peoples' lives that I was surprised at the end to find that two whole hours had gone by. And though I plan on reading the novel by Ian McEwan, in some ways I'm glad I didn't read it before seeing the film, as the surprises in the story were that much more effective. Several of my fellow viewers must not have read the book either, for there were audible gasps and murmurs floating up around the room. I just love it when that happens. I loved so much about the experience of watching this film that I must go see it a few more times. I wonder if I was so fully in the movie's grasp I might have missed some things. This is one movie I am excited to watch over and over again, and I certainly recommend everyone else see it at least once.
To see the trailer and more clips from Atonement check out movies.ivillage.com.