Before everyone realised that No Country For Old Men was on the way to being impenetrable back in 2007’s race for Oscar victory, Atonement was the horse that was being betted on. Before it’s released it was vociferously hyped as the eventual Best Picture winner. It was under this state of elaborate hype that I saw it, thinking – hoping even – that I’d dislike it. And, it was under this same state of unfailing excitement that I was proved wrong when I found that I loved it. One hot summer day, a young girl sees something from a window that she doesn’t understand, and with her active imagination she carves the story we see changing the lives of three people who would probably have had starkly different futures – herself included. In this way, I think that Atonement is less a story of love and its power (which seem somewhat dubious from McEwan’s perspective), and more a story about the power of the mind – a story about imagination – for better, for worse.
I’ll admit, I’m constantly looking for subtext in film, but Atonement gives me much even before I begin looking. Like the very fact that film’s titled is written, and not superimposed, over the screen or the simple fact that Marianelli’s effusive score evocative of the typewriter introduces us – not only to Briony – but to the entire film…or the very simple fact that Wright gives us the flawed interpretations of little Miss Briony not once (by the fountain), not twice (in the library) but thrice (Briony’s “visit” to her sister) – before he gives us the reality. As satisfying a film as it would be without it, repeat viewings always make some things a little clearer. I often single out Garai’s Briony as my favourite incarnation, even as I’m well aware that she’s probably not a real version of the girl. Of course, she’s the only Briony who has any significant form of “atonement”, but this is also the same Briony who spends half of her segment doing things that don’t ever come to pass. Garai is so willing to elude the easy steps in shaping her character. Like her fateful meeting with the French soldier, that’s not just incidental. It’s a brilliant moment for the film, but more so for Garai. Her eyes may not be as strident Saiorse’s, but they’re just as expressive. The way they widen – just slightly – as she realises the faith of the man before her on the hospital bed is subtly perfect. Hampton’s script places a large amount on her shoulder – like that final “visit” to Cecilia. Even without knowing the punch line there’s something freakishly flawed about Cecilia and Robbie there. Keira doesn’t show it as obviously, it’s actually the rare moment where she’s not on superlative (though she’s still good), but McAvoy is so in tune with Robbie elsewhere, there’s something decidedly anomalous (no pun intended) in him as he lashes out at Briony – who does nothing(surprise, surprise – is it this even the real Briony?). It’s one of the clues we’re being given. Events would never have played out like this. Would they?
Of course, even I’ll admit, Atonement is at its most beauteous in the first hour. It’s not that what comes after isn’t as meticulously done, but before the story becomes almost stiflingly saturated – deliberately so – there’s something awesome in watching the sumptuousness of the Tallis House. Not that the subtext isn’t here too. I often wonder why the patriarch of the household is left unseen, I guess one can assume from his benevolence to Robbie that he’s “good” but his wife’s distaste for the poorer class cannot go unmissed. It is a distaste that Keira plays perfectly, ensuring that Cecilia is not perfection epitomised. I love the incidental line readings like “We just move in different circles – is all”. I love, for example, the cold look she gives the servant boy who brings in her brother’s suitcases. “The room next to the nursery,” she tells him with just the slightest trace of unkindness as the poor sod stands confused as to his purpse. Or, at dinner, when Briony comes running down from the bedroom, “There’s a letter.” The startled jump from Robbie and Cecilia is beautiful, Cee almost shrieks, “Give it to me.” It’s easy to miss the relived smiles the two give each other when they realise that it’s a false alarm. It is also in this hour that we witness Ronan’s fine performance. Vocally, perhaps the role could have been as successful with any child but look for the moments of intent meticulousness to see her skill – like her delivery of the letter to Cee, or her discovery of the two lovers in the library. She shows emotion where you’d least expect it – from a child actor at least – masking her natural cadence to illuminate an almost despicable child, a judgement we’re forced to recant when we hear a painful line reading like – “Thank you for saving me. I’m eternally grateful.” Cringe worthy, but not for the reason you’d expect.
I’m simultaneously aware that Atonement is not a film for all even as I’d champion it as a film that all would do well to have seen. It easily places in the top fifth of my favourite films, even though it’s not necessarily “pleasant viewing”. Few films tug at the heartstrings as honestly. It makes you wonder, how willing you are to give into your imagination, for when I remember its end I choose to remember Vanessa Redgrave’s confession only in a cloud and instead stay on the fantasy images of Robbie and Cecilia on the beach. Sure, her act of “atonement” is invariably selfish – but even I, the cynic, would like to believe that they’d gotten their happy ending. That’s the power of imagination, after all.