I’ll be straightforward – Atonement (dir. Joe Wright, 2007) is in my list of my top five favorite movies ever. Period. I might even be as bold to say that it might even be one of the best World War II movies. It is a film that I return to, time after time, no matter my mood (though it’s usually best watched when a little sad).
Why do I love it so much? It is a visually stunning and perfectly crafted film that grapples with truth, heartbreak, humanity, and the ownership of a narrative.
Let’s first start with the story of the film. Adapted from a novel of the same name, the film takes place in England, partially during World War II. It centers around Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) as she tells a lie that impacts her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Cecilia’s love interest, Robbie (James McAvoy), throughout the years. Robbie was meant to start university when he writes a note to Cecilia and, as Briony reads the note, she accuses him of rape which lands him in jail. He is released under the condition that he fights in World War II and then shows him at Dunkirk. When the film transitions into the years of World War II, it does not focus solely on Robbie and his fellow soldiers at Dunkirk, like what many war films do. Instead, it focuses on Briony becoming a wartime nurse and Cecilia living in London and seem to show more of the war’s impact on civilians during the war, especially if the civilians know a person fighting. This more direct focus on both Briony and Cecilia also highlights some of the main themes in the film: heartbreak, regret, and who is allowed to control the story. It highlights how a story can be interpreted through miscommunication and lies. The end of the film reveals Briony’s biggest lie – as an older writer, she reveals that she lied about Cecilia and Robbie reuniting after the battle of Dunkirk, instead mentioning that they both died (Cecilia in a London bombing during the war, Robbie from an infection before the Dunkirk evacuation) and that their reunion was her vision of their happy ending. Briony regrets how the lie she told as a child, only told in order to feel more grown up and gain attention, ended up having repercussions for the rest of her life, impacting her relationship with her sister and possibly causing Robbie’s death. She grieves the loss of her sister and their relationship but also grieves for the possibility of the relationship that Robbie and Cecilia could have had. This twist, knowing that Cecilia and Robbie are never reunited, is a gut punch. Throughout her life, Briony has to deal with the consequences of a lie and she resolves to do what she can, in her life as a writer, to try to right it.
The overall design of the film is one of its biggest assets. From the costume design to its cinematography, the film is breathtaking. The costumes are accurately depicted and equally as stunning – specifically Cecilia’s emerald green dress at the beginning of the film, which is commonly cited as “an iconic fashion moment in film” amongst many viewers. Joe Wright decided on using different color palettes for each period of time, to signify that there was a passage of time since some of the actors stayed the same as their characters grew older, and to help further emphasize a change in moods. The film’s cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, used vintage pantyhose as a tool to give the film a sort of hazy, dreamy look, as if to symbolize Briony’s romanticized memory of her past. In the Dunkirk section of the film, McGarvey also utilizes an impressive long take of around five minutes to showcase the devastation that Robbie and his fellow soldiers felt. The way that it is filmed makes the film able to quickly inform the viewer about the battle of Dunkirk, in case they hadn’t heard of it before, and to show the magnitude of what Robbie must deal with.
Atonement is one of these films that I constantly think about because of its beauty. From the way it tackles the consequences and effects of a small lie to its various elements of production design, it is a beautiful yet heartbreaking film. It is a film that I constantly try to learn more about the elements of storytelling and the details of design from, which is exactly what a good film should do – inspire you to learn more about how it came to be.