ATONEMENT (Joe Wright, 2007)
For 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an overactive imagination, a busybody's curiosity, and a youthful misunderstanding of what she observes are all she needs to commit a sin that will haunt her forever in ATONEMENT.
Like most adolescents Briony is a little too pleased with herself and harbors a crush on a young man, but these are not crimes. One afternoon she spots housekeeper's son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the object of her infatuation, in what appears to be a confrontation with her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley).
Later Briony's nosiness gets the better of her when she tears open a note Robbie asks her to give to Cecilia. He mistakenly encloses a lewd message instead of the more formal letter of affection he handwrote. For a girl in 1935 England, the contents are positively shocking. As if all this isn't plenty for one day, Briony stumbles across Robbie and Cecilia making love before dinner.
By this point Briony is convinced that Robbie is a sex maniac. When she comes upon an adult male assaulting her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) in the shadows, she incorrectly believes that Robbie must be the offender. Her eyewitness account is all that is needed for him to be hauled to prison.
Robbie and Cecilia will not meet again until three and a half years later. She is a nurse tending to the war's wounded. He has agreed to enlist as an army private stationed in northern France rather than remain in jail. Their passion is undiminished, and the possibility of a life together after World War II exists. Meanwhile, Briony (Romola Garai) has bypassed university to be a nurse too. It's her way of doing penance for the grievous error she now realizes she made, although news of this sacrifice hardly redeems her in Robbie and Cecilia's eyes.
In his first two feature films, ATONEMENT and his marvelous 2005 adaptation of PRIDE & PREJUDICE, director Joe Wright has demonstrated a remarkable ability to tell stories using the entire cinematic language. He's particularly keen at utilizing sound to express key qualities. The buzzing bee, which eventually draws Briony's attention to Robbie and Cecilia by the fountain, is heard early in the scene as a hint of her mounting frustration. The repetitive clacking of a typewriter, the most important sound in ATONEMENT, is matched with a flickering light, an indication of the writer's ability to illuminate and obscure the truth. The sound design also heightens the smallest noises, like the flicking of a lighter or tapping of an envelope, to make the environment feel alive.
Wright loves the nuance of non-verbal communication and what it reveals about relationships and emotions that dialogue does less eloquently. This is a tactile film, so it follows that he is drawn to close-ups of hands. Robbie's reaction when Cecilia gently places her hand atop his while his other hand stirs a cup of tea is as expressive as a close-up of their faces could have been. Considering Wright's fondness for hand shots, it is not surprising that one of the most telling signs of Briony's long-held guilt is the furious scrubbing she gives hers at the hospital.
Non-verbal cues are not always properly read, though. Briony's declining opinion of Robbie hinges on misinterpreting the gestures, posture, and expressions in the disagreement she sees from her bedroom window. He appears commanding and angry from her vantage point, but when the scene replays closer to the action, Robbie's manner and Cecilia's glare reflect the intensity of their repressed feelings for each other.
All this focus on the details is not to ignore the cast's stellar performances. The revelation is Ronan in her first major film role. She plays Briony's blind self-confidence and self-righteousness as the product of her age and upbringing. Certainly it doesn't mean that the character is blameless or sympathetic. Briony is a complex role, and Ronan challenges our willingness to forgive her. Also worth noting is the brief appearance Vanessa Redgrave makes in the devastating coda. Wright just has to fix the camera on her and let the veteran actress do the rest.
From the precise sound design to the sprawling tracking shot of the evacuation to Dunkirk, Wright attends to the small and the large with a masterful touch. ATONEMENT is an exquisitely crafted film bursting with the possibilities that cinema has to offer.