Best Picture Profile: Atonement

Directed by: Joe Wright

Company: Universal Pictures, Studio Canal, Relativity Media

Runtime: 123 minutes


The film starts with Briony Tallis, a young girl aspiring to become a playwright. As she prepares for the play that will be presented tonight, she sees events that she interprets as displays of sexual behavior of their trusted men and old family friend Robbie Turner to her sister Cecilia, on which she reacts discreetly with aggressiveness.

In a series of events and misunderstandings, she sees him having sex with her sister, further prompting her belief that he is a sex maniac. During the dinner, Briony’s cousins disappeared, causing a search. While looking for them, Briony sees her cousin Lola sexually assaulted by a man. With the preconception that Robbie has a disturbing sexual nature, she gives an assurance that the man that raped Lola was Robbie. In the arrival of the police, they arrested Robbie, leaving Cecilia with hope of his return to her.

During the war, Robbie got lost from his group. He meets Cecilia, now a nurse, and receives a post card from her as a symbol of remembrance. On the other hand, Briony is also a nurse serving the soldiers wounded during the battles, experiencing the horrors of war. She decides to meet with Cecilia to ask for forgiveness. In this, she also unexpectedly meets Robbie wherein her presence enrages him.

Now, an aged Briony has written her last novel entitled “Atonement” where she has written her whole life and how her mistakes gave tragedy to the lives of Cecilia and Robbie, who she is in love with.

I always thought that this film was accomplished, but hard to love. I just changed my mind.

The direction is fantastic. It brings you to this series of events with such art and power without having even a second of being overdirected. The first 30 minutes of the film show the director’s prowess to create the story, a complicated story to tell, in those time. Those minutes are vital because that’s where we set the story on, and you need care in those scenes because it establishes what the film is rooted in: truth. We are talking here of the versions of the truth the film has to present through different perspectives. And what we have in those scenes are tense sequences of intertwining views on an event. It’s a fearless handling that is really evident though it never tries to steal the attention to what is really happening.

As the story goes, the feeling of dread  and desperation is immensely visible in the scenes after the affair. The scene where Robbie walks and sees a group of dead women then he remembers the time where Briony tried to drown herself for him to save her, as she has a secret crush on him, is a masterful illustration of the situation. The subtlety of the moment and the underlining sorrow is pitched in a very realistic manner. It doesn’t show fancy camera tricks, just perfect orchestration of shots and music edited together. Then we go back to what is really happening. It’s a realistic approach to the scene that is captured very well.

And what we have next are two great scenes of the movie:

The Dunkirk beach sequence exemplifies the vast knowledge and control of the director. In that renowned one shot, the camera was able to capture the spontaneity of the events filled with despair and with a clinging presence of death. It absorbs the threatening environment that the scene profoundly speaks of. We see violence everywhere and, for me, the thing in that scene that always gets me is that it summarizes the war’s effect in that scene without compressing it to a point that it felt contrived. The horses, the singing soldiers – it all sums up the big wound the war left those involved in it, and we all see it in Robbie. He should not have been there. But it is the tragedy of the scene. The war was the one that we can see, but the point of the whole scene i to show us Robbie’s tragedy. In this, we understand every bit of anger that he has on Briony when he confronted her.

And that leads us to the next great scene: the confrontation of Cecilia, Robbie, and Briony. It’s a fantastically directed scene, especially that it was a pivotal scene in the movie. It unleashes everything Robbie has kept in himself for all this time that he was in the war. Maybe we could that scene to the wonderful acting, or the smart editing, or the brilliant screenplay, but it is all the director’s job to make the whole thing work. It was never meant to be a revenge for Robbie. It’s like a release of all that he has during all those years. Aside from the Dunkirk scene, I could say this is the film’s best scene. More about this scene later.

The screenplay is top-notch. It also had a very complicated job making the whole game of fate and circumstances work. It’s all in coincidences, but the screenplay creates an established panorama of believable characters that you believe every second of their actions and the whole flow never seemed forced. The writing’s work is more evident in the first act because it served the big work in here in planting details so that when we witness the next two acts, which are more reliant on the striking imagery, we understand the poetry in it. Maybe there’s not really much to say about this, but I just want to cite how thin Cecilia Tallis was written. That’s not really a criticism. I’ll say more about that later.

The cinematography is gorgeous. I know how the unique feel was done (with thin stockings) and the result is just perfection. There is a luminous sensation to the scenes. What I can praise in the cinematography is not really the angles (though they’re terribly effective, oh, those water scenes), but its look. The whole movie look classy and a stand-out from the other nominees this year for best picture. This film looked like it was exactly from that era where it was set, of course not counting the contemporary films. The film just looked special. The most beautifully shot part of the film is undoubtedly. It’s where the sharpness is kind of blurry, everything is shiny and glossy without being distracting. It indicates the unclear view of Briony to the events. It creates a glorious feeling to the viewers which totally helps in the building up of the atmosphere.

The editing is delicious. I believe the editor had the hardest job in the first act since I just cannot think of any way to integrate those scenes without being lost in it. Its unbearable build-up of tension is absolutely near-perfect. The scenes in the hospital with Briony are also a great example of how can editing create the world in the eyes of Briony. It’s like the whole world is in high speed without being distracting because we understand that this is Briony’s world. Notice the difference between scenes with Briony and scenes with Robbie and Cecilia. There is a distinction between the two because we know that Briony sees things in a very different way. It’s a skillful and very complicated job for the director, but he surely nails it.

The musical score is majestic. I cannot say much about it except that it was great. There is the massive feeling of tension and classicism in every music that plays. The dynamic use of music brings the movie to a higher level of movie experience. It absorbs us to be in this world full of distrust and panic. I mean, hell! To actually give us the tension that is going on in Briony’s mind, we have music with the sound of the typewriter perfectly integrated and orchestrated – that’s a real genius! I don’t really have much to say except that it was a great job from the composer. No wonder he raked most of the awards for music that year. It’s a juicy role in the making of the over-all impact of the film, and he does it great.

The costume design is excellent. It adroitly illustrates the characters without ever forgetting the sophistication drawn in the clothes. Just look at Cecilia’s green dress. It’s definitely a commendable effort. It’s not just a stylish outfit, it perfectly fits Cecilia’s personality in the succeeding scenes after we first see her with the dress. It signals her subliminal desire for Robbie. It’s a free-flowing, smooth dress that illustrates her independence from decency. It’s a seductive dress that sensationalizes the ensuing seduction that will linger in her scenes with Robbie later. And who will forget its use in the library scene? It’s a taste of seduction without being overt its goal. And let us not forget the other dresses. Briony’s dress in the first act clearly defines her innocent facade that clearly contrasts with her aggressive inside.

The production design completes the film’s over-all atmosphere. From the intricate design of the Dunkirk beach to the simple design of Briony’s room which all makes profound statements. And with the help of the production design, the film felt like it was epic but was so personal. The cinematography captures that, for sure, but the production design made it actually possible. There’s no bit of fallacy in the details emphasized, and even not emphasized, by the film. It’s a whole new world for us to be in, and we all experience that because of the production design.

The acting is undoubtedly the film’s strongest part. Even its weak link is strong enough to fit in the circle of skilled actors.

James McAvoy is excellent as Robbie Turner.When you watch the film, it’s him that will mostly leave a mark on you. It’s a very gentle performance that is full of passion and fire without trying to overshadow anybody else. It’s a refined but not overly mannered role done well by him. The role requires him to give courtesy, but he is not just a servant – he is a friend. When he is angry, the anger that he evokes definitely last. When he is sad, you just feel it. He makes you feel what he feels. There are good actors who can act, but cannot make us feel what they are doing, but not McAvoy. We understand every inch of his actions and words. And his eyes definitely work. Whether he simply looks at the sky, or decides to type a malicious letter, or confronts Briony after the years. It just all work for his amazing performance.

Keira Knightley is actually good, if we are also going to consider how thinly written her role is. She has a lot of conflicts, but just that. She never has a full character. Instead, she sees these events and she just reacts in it. But she does it actually well. She has a reactive character, and she understands that. She’s not the most tragic character, nor the most depressed, but she has a tragedy of her own. She lost her only love, and Knightley sells every minute of that.

Saoirse Ronan gives a serviceable but somewhat disappointing performance as the Young Briony. She does it well, and now, I’m saying this as a favor to the performance, I cannot think of any actress as Young Briony. This means that she fits so well to the role. However, maybe because of the screenplay or maybe just because of her, she merely dissolves into a symbol of distrust and self-confidence. She has a lot more opportunities than Knightley, but I cared for Knightley more than her. Still, I’m not saying she was bad. Actually, I buy the aggressive attitude that she has, especially to Robbie. Ronan is a natural, and I can see that in the dinner scene. But to see this adequate performance getting recognized beside Tilda Swinton in a terrific performance and Amy Ryan in a masterful portrayal in their respective movies, I just don’t think she fits in there. Again, she was not bad, just not that special.

But, hey, the thing that she was able to do well is to establish Briony as a person. In that way, we will not have problems when we already see the older Brionys, and she does that very well.

Romola Garai is wonderful as the Teenage Briony. Her duty is to carry on what Ronan left in the first act. Now, her Briony is much more haunting, due to the fact that this is not an aggressive Briony anymore, it’s a Briony that seeks forgiveness. She plays the character’s intentions very well. Of course, she said that she could do a lot more if she would be a nurse than to write in the university, but is it the real reason? Maybe, she serves the wounded soldiers in the war as a sign of self-forgiveness. She calms herself by treating other soldiers, thinking that she cold have already treated Robbie in a way. For me, it was her way of asking forgiveness.

But it also gives her the inner struggle, which is wonderfully seen in Garai. She is daunted by the awful sight that she has all over her place, but she never lets her guard down. Her steady face already suggests her emotions, and it’s nice to see Briony get some three-dimensionality here through the hands of Garai. In that way, she kind of redeem any shortcomings Ronan showed us in her characterization.

Vanessa Redgrave is heartbraking as the Old Briony. In her last days, Briony releases her last novel to give herself forgiveness. And we all discover that in one scene. It’s amazing how she could tell Briony’s feelings summed up in one scene and break our hearts. Of course, the two actresses who played the younger Brionys helped a lot in putting up a strong foundation for Redgrave’s version, but she adds her own flavor of acting experience and naturalism in her scene. There are no breakdown of tears, just an aching and realistic speech about her regrets and ‘could-have-beens’. She wants to be forgiven, but it is already impossible (in a twist that I won’t reveal even if the movie has been known to all), so she writes the novel. It’s a touching farewell since she is already dying, but her dedication for her novel to be released, in that one scene, is sincerely heartfelt, and dare I say, she deserves the supporting actress nomination more than Ronan.

Even then, it’s a strong cast over-all.

In its totality, it is a poetic journey into the wonders of cinema. and life It voices the unspeakable power of cinematic beauty unlike any other film that year. Repeated viewings definitely help for you to love this film. Adeptly paced and stylishly produced, it serves as one of the stronger movies in recent memory.

For this, the movie gets:

What are your thoughts, dear reader?

2 thoughts on “Best Picture Profile: Atonement

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