Captivating ‘Atonement’ turns on a tragic mistake

October 4, 2012

About half of the film Atonement is set on a posh English country estate during a scorching 1930s day. The estate, which belongs to the Tallis family, is being visited by the Quincey children, a teenaged girl and her two younger brothers, who are cousins of the Tallises, and by two young men.

One of those men is Robbie Turner. Like middle child Cecilia Tallis, he has just graduated from university. In truth, he lives on the family estate; his late father was and his mother is a longtime household servant. In the fashion of virtually every love story involving upper-crust Britons, Turner and Cecilia must fight to acknowledge their feelings for one another.

As the youngest Tallis child, 13-year-old Briony, watches Turner and Cecilia over the course of the day, she becomes convinced that he is a sex maniac.

That night, what should be an ordinary dinner party is disrupted when everyone abruptly realizes that the two Quincey boys have run away. During a chaotic search, Briony runs across Lola Quincey being raped. Neither she nor Lola see the face of the rapist, but Briony is a girl of fierce conviction. She accuses Turner.

Cut to the French countryside some years later. The Nazis have routed the English expeditionary force; Turner and two fellow soldiers make their way to the coast to await rescue by the British navy. But that turns out to be no sure thing: The Luftwaffe is bombing troop carriers in the Channel, and thousands of men are now trapped between the water and the advancing Nazi war machine.

Turner’s arrival on the beach is followed by a stunning, lengthy continuous shot that forcefully conveys the hopelessness of the British position. The hellish scene features literally hundreds of extras, most in uniform and many sporting fake wounds. The British soldiers, who have no natural defenses against the German army, are destroying their transportation. If, like me, you are vaguely familiar with the nightmare that was Dunkirk, this amazing extended shot and the scenes that follow will make a deep impression.

This movie tells the story of Turner and Cecilia, but it is belongs to Briony Tallis, who as she matures slowly comes to realize of the magnitude of her false testimony, which sundered Cecilia from the love of her life.

Can she repair the damage that she wrought? The novelist and filmmakers never directly answer that question. Instead, they make clear that the answer will vary depending on each individual’s viewpoint.

Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, working from Ian McEwan’s excellent but controversial 2001 novel, take their time introducing the various players and setting the plot in motion. In the end, though, the film is brilliant and haunting. (I also loved McEwan’s novel, which I read a few years ago.) I watched it in two parts; once I finished, I found myself replaying parts of the story again and again in my mind.

Make no mistake: This is a challenging drama. Many important points are left unsaid, especially during the first half, in which the repressive social norms of England’s upper crust hold sway. But the cast is fantastic, from top to bottom, and I found it hard to turn away from the movie, even as I knew the tortures that lay ahead for the various characters.

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