This is one of the most moving films I've seen all year. Well-crafted, well-acted, beautiful to look at, and featuring a fantastic score, this film worked for me on every level. Easily one of the most faithful adaptations I've ever seen, this is a film that I absolutely loved it from beginning to end.
The fim is faithful to the book on which it is based not just in terms of the plot, but also in the way that the story is told, going back and forth, splintering between one perspective and another.It begins with Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan), a thirteen-year-old girl who is too smart for her age, and not mature enough for her intelligence. She tells a lie which results in the separation of her sister, Cecelia (Keira Knightley) from Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of their family's housekeeper, when Robbie is taken away to prison. There are a few reasons why she tells the lie, all of which feed into each other. First, she's seen a few things during the day that have gone on between Robbie and Cecelia (an incident at a fountain, a letter mistakenly sent, a tryst in the library) that she doesn't really understand, though she believes that she does. What Briony is lacking is the ability to really discern the context in which she is seeing these things and so rather than seeing the various shades of gray, all she sees is black and white.
Second, Briony has a crush on Robbie and is obviously jealous of what she sees transpiring between himself and Cecelia. If Robbie isn't going to be Briony's hero (and Briony's alone), then she will make him into the villain. Third, and perhaps most important, is the fact that Briony is an aspring writer and sees the situation as a story for herself to guide. The problem is, she lacks the maturity to guide it properly (i.e. honestly) and doesn't seem to understand the consequences of what she's doing, the fact that once “written,” her conclusion cannot be erased.
The early scenes establish Briony perfectly. Despite her age, she obviously considers herself very grown up, already thinking of herself as a Capital A artist as she completes the play she hopes that she and her cousins will perform that evening. Part of the reason why she begins developping her “Robbie is a sex maniac” story is to gain the upperhand on her cousin, Lola who, like herself, is young but attempts to behave and carry herself as if she's older. Being the story teller gives Briony power and allows her to play at being more grown up than she is.
Following Robbie's arrest, the story jumps ahead four years, to when he's a soldier in France, Cecelia is a nurse, and Briony (now played by Ramola Gari) is training to become a nurse and finally beginning to grasp the nature of what she's done. She wants to make amends, even though she suspects that it's too late. These scenes are also effective, conveying a different side of Briony, as she begins to see herself as we see her in the first act of the film. The end of the film, where Briony is played by Vanessa Redgrave, is heartbreaking on a number of levels, not only because we know what becomes of Robbie and Cecelia, but also because we know how deeply Briony regrets what she's done, how much she wants to take it back, how greatly she's punished herself for it, and how much it has come to define her life.
Although this is Briony's story, the central character is actually Robbie; and although Briony is the character who must atone for what she's done, the atonement of the title can also be seen as referring to Robbie, who is the Christ figure of the story and will suffer for Briony's sin. One of the more obvious visual allusions for this is when Robbie, ill from an infected wound (his wound, too, can be read as an allusion to Christ) and having walked a long distance to the beach of Dunkirk, hallucinates that his mother is washing his feet. This scene comes towards the end of the film, shortly after a tracking shot that lasts nearly five minutes and can only be described as epic. The shot follows Robbie and his two companions across the beach at Dunkirk, where thousands of other soldiers are waiting to be evacuated. In the background there's a ferris wheel turning, in the foreground we see the various ways that the other soldiers are killing time, including a group that's gathered to sing as a choir, a handful who are playing around on a carousel, and the unlucky ones who have to shoot the horses that won't be transported back. All the scenes of Robbie in France are great, but this shot is particularly beautiful, one of the most memorable ever to grace the screen. It should also be noted that it was apparently accomplished without the use of CGI.
This is an incredibly engaging film, one that brings you right in rather than holding you at arm's length. By the end, I found myself emotionally exhausted, the ending able to move me even though, having read the book, I knew what was coming. It is rare in my experience to see a film that so exactly evoke its source material right down to the minute details (the best example I can think of is the tryst in the library. See the film then read that section of the book: it is exactly the same, right down to the way Cecelia turns her head) without the source seeming almost like a crutch, like the filmmaker was so in love with the way it was originally written that he or she can't bear to make a change that would otherwise soften the transition from page to screen. Atonement the film manages to exist in its own right, becoming its own entity separate and apart from the book even while staying faithful to the book. This is an absolutely excellent film.