Atonement is a British movie (2007) based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, published in 2001, directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley (Cecilia Tallis), James McAvoy (Robbie Turner), Saoirse Ronan (Briony Tallis, 13), Romola Garai (Briony, age 18), Vanessa Redgrave (Briony, 70).Embed from Getty Images
We also see Benedict Cumberbatch (as Paul Marshall) in a supporting , yet crucial for the plot, role. It turned out to be the role that made Steven Moffat want Benedict to play Sherlock in the BBC series, as he considered him to be just the right amount of creepy and sleek in order to embody the world’s only consulting detective in a 21st century version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works. What a good choice he made!
Atonement opened both the 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival and the 64th Venice Film Festival, making at the time 35 year old Wright the youngest director ever to open the latter event. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Score at the 80th Academy Awards, and was nominated for six others, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Saoirse Ronan. It also was nominated at the 61st British Academy Film Awards, winning both Best Film and Production Design, and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama.
The novel itself in turn is widely regarded as one of McEwan’s best works and was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction. In 2010, TIME magazine named Atonement in its list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923.
The plot in a nutshell: 13 year old Briony Tallis, seeing herself as an aspiring writer, is quite self-complacent and having a crush on her older sister Cecilia’s suitor Robbie. In the course of the events taking place on a hot and sultry summer’s day, she ends up accusing him of a crime he did not commit, inevitably and irreversibly changing the course of their lives: the wrongly accused Robbie goes to jail and subsequently to war, Cecilia breaks up with her family, and Briony – realizing the bearing of what she did – tries to atone for her guilt throughout, but in vain. There are other characters – Paul Marshall and Briony’s cousin Lola Quincey – whose lives also get changed for good by the events, adding further to Briony’s feeling of being consumed by guilt, desperately wanting to make things right again.
The film follows the outlines of the book quite closely, starting out from a sticky summer’s day in a stately home in 1935 pre-war England, being the stage for the events that trigger the plot, over 1940’s France at the time of preparation for the Dunkirk evacuation and a London hospital, where nurses train, being confronted with the consequences of war as wounded soldiers are flooding in, finally leading to the big reveal in 1977 – Atonement is a novel about a novel! At the start we see Briony trying to stage her play named The Trials of Arabella. She authors and appears in her play in much the same way that she authors and appears in the book as a whole. The Trials of Arabella thus serves as a synecdoche—a play in a play (or plot) —for the larger book that contains it.
Comparing the movie to the book, I found that some excellent choices have been made by screenwriter Christopher Hampton in order to convey visually the inner dialogues and thought processes of the characters. So for instance we see the key scene – leading to Briony drawing a false conclusion, eventually triggering tragic consequences – taking place twice subsequently in the movie, the two scenes depicting a different character’s experience of the same event.
Some scenes are more in focus or extended in the film, like e.g. the drinks scene by the pool, where Paul Marshall boasts about his fortune and how he is going to increase his wealth by making sure every soldier in the field has one of his chocolate Amo bars with him. Another example is the scene in which Paul Marshall goes to visit the Quincey children in the nursery, emphasizing the sexual tension between 15 year old Lola and Paul, as he hands her an Amo bar and prompts her to “bite it”. Both scenes are serviceable to convey the deviousness and ruthlessness of his character, which later on becomes even more evident.
I found this to be one of the two really significant differences between the book and the movie. While “Paul Marshall” is still a supporting role in the movie, compared to the book his character has been extended and his importance for the plot emphasized greatly, and Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him is as menacing and creepy as can be.
The other substantial difference is the ending. Both, the book and the movie, start out at the same point for the epilogue, as we see Briony on her 70th birthday, having received the bleak diagnosis of suffering from vascular dementia. At this point, movie and book differ the most, as the movie has added content that is not included in the book, and vice versa there are scenes missing from the movie that are in the book, like e.g. Briony seeing now old aged and frail Paul and his wife Lola from afar. The movie though offers a completely different end scene going from here, the actual end being as tragic as the book’s one, even though in my opinion the ending in the movie leaves a bit more to the viewer to decide, whereas the book is ruthless in its finality and left me quite shocked and thoughtful.
The main themes in both, the book and the film, are individual perspective (especially in the book with its shifting perspectives from third person omniscient to partially omniscient to 1st person) and how it shapes one’s reality. Guilt and how it influences one’s mind as well as one’s life and the decisions one makes or cannot make, because they are out of one’s control, is another big theme. This becomes especially clear when we see Robbie in war-ridden France, where he realizes that in order to save his own life he must not feel guilt with regard to others’ lives.
Another important topic is how belonging to a specific class influences one’s life. Robbie Turner , as intelligent and kind, morally and intellectually exceptional as he is, is “just” the gardener’s son, and while he has been promoted by Briony’s father through school and now university (where he studies at the same time as Cecilia), his lower class prevents him from choosing his own fate, while Paul Marshall, who is the true villain in the story, is protected by his higher societal status. Everybody believes Briony when she accuses Robbie of having raped Lola. It doesn’t even occur to anybody that it could have been someone else, or if so, certainly not one of their ilk. Marshall even buys himself out of his debt by marrying his victim, Lola, thus rendering atonement for Briony absolutely impossible, as Marshall’s now-wife cannot be forced to testify against him.
Loss of innocence is another big theme in Atonement. While Briony as a 13 year old believes she knows how to interpret everything that is going on around her, including love, she comes to realize with time just how disastrous her misperceptions of what happened on that summer’s day have been and grows to be more understanding about how different others see things. Also Cecilia and Robbie lose a lot of innocence, as they learn how ruthless societal rules are applied, leading to Robbie being jailed for a crime he did not commit and Cecilia subsequently breaking up with her family. Lola loses her – real and virtual – innocence, when she gets raped by Paul Marshall, whom she later even marries though, thus covering up for his crime and for her own silence back then, but at the same time making up for her loss by becoming a rich and eminently respectable member of society.
I was deeply touched by the book, even more so than by the movie – which is outstanding nevertheless. Both, book and movie, tell a story about guilt, the loss of innocence, the attempt at atonement and the realization that , whatever you do, you can never change the past, so choose your actions wisely!