My thanks to Viv Apple for the following review:
I found ‘Atonement’ so absorbing and involving that it took me some time to untangle my thoughts about it. It was certainly beautiful, but was it about class, or love, the pity of war, or the foolishness of youth? It was all of these and more. The opening scenes, set in a country house in the 1930s, seemed to exaggerate class attitudes a little too much, but even that became acceptable for the times as the drama took over.
In a key scene the teenage Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a dreamer, looks through a window and sees her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) strip off her dress and dive into a fountain watched by Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son who has just graduated from Cambridge. Briony misinterprets the situation, which leads to more complex misunderstandings and eventually to the tragic separation of Robbie and Cecilia just after they have acknowledged their love for each other.
Although the story was made believable by sensitive performances, there were some flaws which could have undermined the whole narrative. For example, the police investigation which hinged on a young girl’s word was glossed over, even though it appeared that Robbie, the accused, was elsewhere when the offence in question was committed.
Fast forward four years, and the rest of the film is set during the second world war. We see the effects of Briony’s lie intertwined with her attempts to atone for her behaviour.
I won’t spoil the plot by describing any more of its intricacies, but must mention the remarkable Dunkirk scene: a long tracking shot in which Robbie wanders, wounded, through the beach with all the horrors of that time around him. Hundreds of soldiers, horses, a beached boat with shredded sails, men singing in an old bandstand, all against a background of a Ferris wheel, combined to create a surreal atmosphere reminiscent of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’. At first I thought this too unreal and stagy, but then it struck me that it was not meant to be representational. The effect was highly emotional and, like Picasso’s Guernica, the surreal nature of the scene underlined the unimaginable horror of war.
In a final scene, Vanessa Redgrave plays Briony in old age, effectively bringing together loose ends. Beautifully done, but somewhat marred by a sugary final shot which bordered on cliché. Had director Joe Wright cut the film by 30 seconds, I would have believed it all.