The Young Briony
A butterfly flaps its wings…a tell-tale is told and the lives of those concerned are inexorably and irrevocably altered. As is the Tallis tittle-tattler who has to live with the consequences in a way those told on do not due to reasons later to be revealed – in the 2007 film and in my review.
Atonement shifts in place and time like Tarantino but in a more hazy and unpredictable way – a number of times I got caught out believing a new scene was being played out only to find it was an old scene relived from another’s perspective.
The film starts to the clatter of type-writer keys in rural Shropshire, England in the late 1930’s soon to be engulfed by World War II – though for the key characters engulfed by something else seemingly far more trivial yet of a far more fatal outcome.
Robbie and Cecilia
The precocious young writer completes her play. In another scene the object of her childhood affection types another piece this time a briefer but far more deadly and significant prose – two letters – one an innocent explanation of his behaviour and request for forgiveness and one more blunt in jest not intended to be shared – ‘In my dreams I kiss your cunt. Your sweet wet cunt’ all typed out to the delirious ardour of Jussi Bjoerling’s version of ‘O Soave Fanciulla’ from Puccini’s La Boheme playing on the record player in his room – but it is that one that is to get shared and its messenger the aforementioned young writer who first reads it – and espies the C word in duplicate. And for that word all this trouble unfolds?
Robbie and Cecilia caught in the act
He is imprisoned but is allowed his freedom if he becomes a British solider in the second World War to be stationed in France – he regains his liberty at the cost of his life.
His beloved estranged from her family because of this accusation becomes a nurse to care for the wounded victims of this War. We believe they are ultimately reunited in her Balham flat only to belatedly discover this was a fabrication of the younger sister whose story this film is. Instead the elder sister is herself a victim of the war – of a bomb and gas explosion killing the sheltering inhabitants of the Balham underground station.
The Teenage Briony
The younger sister wants to atone for her lie to her sister and her now husband by retracting her statement. And she knows and remembers now the culprit only to discover that he has married the victim of his crime making her testimony null and void.
At the end of her life we discover she has finally written and confessed all in her 21st novel – Atonement – but why wait until her twenty-first we wonder – until we discover that the two lovers had never been atoned in real-life as their life had in fact ended in the War and only she had to live with her shameful secret the rest of her life. Only now she decides she must reveal and unburden herself also made more keen by the discovery that she is dying – her brain is diseased and her memory and words will begin to desert her.
Her elder sister is Cecilia Tallis played by Keira Knightley and the object of both sisters affections and love is Robbie Turner played by James McAvoy.
The older Briony
The younger sister on the other hand is played by three actors because unlike the doomed couple she gets to live out the full span of her life – the youthful Briony Tallis who makes the accusation is played by Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai takes on the coming of age period of her life and the end of her long life is finished off by Vanessa Redgrave who finally writes the book and shares the secret, in effect with all as the interview is on live TV. All and sundry that is but the two most needing to hear it the victims of her tale Cecilia and Robbie.
All Briony’s give striking performances – Saoirse Ronan a very convincing and compelling performance as the younger and Vanessa Redgrave a typically memorable and charismatic finale to the life of the younger Tallis. Captivating too again is Romola Garai in yet another impressive literary adaptation (on TV as Jane Austen’s eponymous Emma and as Sugar in Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White) as the coming of age, innocence-ending Briony.
The war scenes both in the hospital wards and on the fields of battle around Dunkirk were very moving, visually striking and unsentimental.
There were a number of other good cast performances if mostly supporting and fleeting – Olivia Grant played a probationary nurse but blink and you may well miss her! Gina McKee playing the head nurse Sister Drummond you would not miss but still a fleeting performance. As also Robbie’s mother played by Brenda Blethyn. Fans of the recent BBC Sherlock Holmes adaptation Sherlock get to see Benedict Cumberbatch in an early role – with a name destined not to be forgotten!
I am not familiar with English author Ian McEwan‘s novel on which this film was based and certainly now want to become so. I cannot comment then on how the narrative treatment by English director Joe Wright compares to the novel – whether it is faithful to it or strays in any notable ways. Joe Wright himself the longest in a line sure to get ever longer of those bringing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to our screens – his version also starring Keira Knightley and indeed Brenda Blethyn. He has begun work on another literary adaptation this time Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and guess who plays Anna – yes you guessed it Keira! The youthful Briony Saoirse Ronan also gets a recall too. A film director who is developing a reliable pedigree of intelligent and worthwhile book to film adaptations.
Atonement is a romantic tale with as much high sense as deep sensibility, a moving doomed romance told and recalled without sentiment.
A romantic tale which remains lodged as much in my mind as my heart.
Cecilia in the Balham Underground