Literary adaptation too often become waxworks in slavishly reverent and cinematically lifeless screen incarnations. Atonement (2007), adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel by Christopher Hampton and directed by Joe Wright, bristles with life, lust, jealousy, betrayal, and tragedy with a small “t,” the kind reserved for us mere mortals.
Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are the teenage lovers Cecilia, the beautiful daughter in a wealthy English family, and Robbie, son of the manor’s housekeeper. The two grew up together but when Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan in her breakout role) sees them together, the budding young author (she pens short stories and plays) is convinced that there is something sinister in Robbie and she makes an accusation that changes the course of all of their lives.
Director Joe Wright, fresh off his 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice (also with Knightley), takes a quantum leap in ambition and confidence. He drinks in the period while reaching beyond the surface and into the unsettled emotional lives of the characters—passion, betrayal, guilt. Their story leaves the bucolic English countryside of green lawns and privileged lives for World War II and Wright presents an impressive, immersive recreation of the evacuation of Dunkirk.
The clack of typewriter strokes becomes the driving beat of both the story (for reasons that come clear in the final act) and distinctive score that earned the film’s sole Oscar (of seven nominations). It delivers us to the final atonement, a quietly moving moment that, once again, reframes the story and leaves the audience with the question: can you really atone for some acts?
Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave take over the role of Briony, playing the character as she ages, and Brenda Blethyn, Harriet Walter, and Benedict Cumberbatch costar.
It also earned Oscar nominations for best picture, supporting actress (Saoirse Ronan), adapted screenplay, and cinematography and won the BAFTA for best film and production design.
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Atonement: Special Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray and DVD special editions feature director commentary and two featurettes.