“How old do you have to be before you know the difference between right and wrong?”
After working together on Pride & Prejudice (2005), Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright reunited to work on romantic war drama Atonement (2007), an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2001 metafiction novel of the same name. They would later rejoin forces for Anna Karenina (2012), establishing one of the most faithful working relationships in the industry.
The British-French-American co-production is set in three time periods: 1935 England, Second World War England, and France. The story follows a thirteen-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan, Ramola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave) as she enjoys a serene existence in an aristocratic family in 1930s England. Her confusing fascination with Robbie (James McAvoy), the cleaning lady’s son and her sister Cecilia’s (Keira Knightley) romantic interest, only adds to her baffling perception of his character. When she catches the two in a compromising position, her inner turmoil tips the scales – but not in Robbie’s favour. Accused of a perverse, illegal crime, Robbie is sent to prison – from which conscription is the only escape. Altering the couple’s lives forever, Briony is left to deal with the grave consequences of her actions.
Though the film’s fragility is reminiscent of a cracking egg shell, the initial events of the story carry an air of mystery and an unsettling discomfort that titillates as much as it shocks. Perhaps that’s why it’s impossible to perceive Atonement as an overdramatised romance. It weaves its way through time and narration, presenting fast-paced scenes that dip into uneasiness as seamlessly as they chew on our tear ducts. The plot, therefore, resides on a fine line between genres and emotions, guaranteeing an inner-monologue based on questionable morality. Particularly the culmination of the film’s shy hope, which simultaneously screams of pathos, leaves the audience haunted – for days, months, years. We are presented with events, which vary depending on one’s fickle perception of them. The ease with which fates are reshaped seems horrid simply because of its relatability. And that very tenderness, condensed to 123 minutes of screen time, appears to be where the bleeding heart of the story lies.
Aside from Dario Marianelli’s poignant music, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography – capturing the play of shadows on sorrow-filled faces – and Jacqueline Durran’s indelible costume design, the actors themselves serve as portals into the haunting world of Atonement. Keira Knightley and James McAvoy craft a harrowingly tenuous romantic connection that is pulled to its limits before it’s had time to take its first breath. Their perfectly poised, hard-hitting acting laces itself into the gently humming story, challenging the short-lived loves we welcome into our own lives – and give up on too quickly.
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