Home Video: Atonement

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

For Those Who Haven’t Seen It. Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel was rightly nominated for seven Oscars. On the surface, the plot concerns a common British soldier’s plight at Dunkirk in May 1940, but most of the film’s action takes place years before at a posh English estate.

Robbie Turner is the estate’s young handyman/gardener, a sturdy dreamer who has great hopes for the future. There’s romantic tension between Robbie and Cecelia Tallis, the young lady of the estate who grew up with Robbie. The tension is complicated by Celia’s 13-year-old sister Briony, who has an overactive (and jealous) imagination.

On a hot summer evening, the girls’ brother Leon returns home while another family is visiting and hopes for the future go tragically awry when Leon invites Robbie to join them all for dinner.

Briony, an aspiring writer, creates and rewrites history in a storyline that sends Robbie to France and back again and turns sister Cecelia into a would-be Florence Nightingale. Christopher Hampton’s wonderful script and Dario Marianelli’s score create a magical interaction between cinematic “reality” and the creations of Briony’s mind.

It’s kind of a pity that a film like this has to be rated, because its R is justified (for language and mature themes)… but the world would be a better place if we didn’t think kids needed to be protected from art. Of course, Briony sort of proves the point.

For Those Want to Get Past the Popcorn (Spoilerville). “You’re not a reliable witness.” So Robbie tells Briony after his, um, return from Dunkirk. Yeah. That’s the whole deliciousness of Hampton’s script.

As the movie progresses, we gradually find out more about Briony’s self-image and twisted perception of the events that transpired. But ultimately, how much of any of it can we trust? Particularly given that the whole thing is, in fact, based on a novel and that McEwan is not Tallis. So we’re stuck with Briony’s version of things, even her “reconstruction” of what occurred at the fountain between Robbie and Cecelia. Briony presumes to know an awful lot about what goes on in their heads, especially when it comes to Robbie’s experience of Dunkirk.

It’s a real credit to both Hampton and Wright that audiences buy into all that artifice; in lesser hands, the whole thing might be laughable. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy for filmmakers to rely on the audience’s credulity–even gullibility. After all, we consume video entertainment pretty much the same way we consume Top Pot donuts, relishing the overall effect without thinking very deeply about what goes into them. (If we did, we’d eat less, don’t you know.)

Saorise Ronan is brilliantly cast, and performs so well that you may wish the latter parts of the film featuring Briony were shorter.

Still, this is an engrossing, stylishly-filmed tale, one well worth recommending as it hearkens back to the days of Great British Filmmaking when David Lean, Anthony Harvey, and Richard Attenborough (among others) were cranking out classy historical epics. Ultimately, though, I must confess that the film (like those of Lean) left me a little cold this time.

There’s much beauty on screen, and passion as well–but it’s not passion that particularly stirs one’s own heart.

Atonement is included with your Netflix subscription. It’s also available to rent on Amazon and YouTube.