Love Letters to Film: Atonement

Joe Wright’s adaptation of Atonement is an absolutely beautiful tragedy – I can’t think about it without getting a little sad. Impeccably acted and gloriously shot – it’s very much a rich and layered telling of the power of words and the consequences of the choices we make. It was also one of the saddest film-going experiences of my life.

A Sad Movie-Going Experience

I saw this film in one of the oldest theatres in my hometown. A lovely little theatre built before the 1940’s – with very minimal changes (with exception to the project system). I love this theatre, and thought that the dated elegance of the theatre would match the period romance of Atonement. It was a perfect fit – except for a few small details…..

We arrived early (as the theatre only opens for two shows a night). It was chilly in the main lobby and even colder in the theatre (it was mid-December in Canada – which means it was freezing outside).  My friend and I sat next to a very distinguished looking older gentleman (he looked a lot like Peter O’Toole). About 10 minutes before the show started, a theatre employee made an announcement that the heating in the building wasn’t working, and that if we’d like to stay for the show, complimentary hot chocolate would be provided. I was wearing a parka – so that seemed like a good option to me. Atonement, for all its beauty and grandeur – is a hauntingly sad film. I “ugly’cried” quite a bit. The combination of no heat, ice cold hot chocolate, and my friend and the senior citizen sitting on either side of me bawling their eyes out… it was one of the saddest film-going experiences of my life.

Based on Ian McEwan’s novel, the film Atonement captures the sorrow and almost operatic story love, loss and the impact of a single lie.  I won’t compare the book to the film – books often (not always) surpass their film counterparts – but I truly love this film.


We meet Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), the bold, older daughter of an old family, and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), their housekeeper’s promising son, who is an Oxford graduate, thanks to the generosity of Cecilia’s father. Despite their difference in social class, they are powerfully attracted to each other, and that leads to a charged erotic episode next to a fountain on the house lawn. Cecelia’s younger sister, a fledgling 13-year old writer, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), changes the course of several lives when she accuses Robbie of a crime he did not commit.

Joe Wright makes films that look like paintings. Together with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, editor Paul Tothill, production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, Wright has created a magnificent, rich and complex film – unbelievably lovely to look at. Dario Marianelli’s score infuses the banging of a typewriter into his complex musical arrangements – creating such urgency and wonderful tension in each scene.

The film deals with countless issues – truth and lies, upper class and lower class, right and wrong, love and betrayal, misunderstandings and misinterpretations, conscience and consequence. It’s an absorbing film with impressive performances – nearly perfect in its execution.


We flash forward from that fateful night when Robbie was arrested and are now thrown into the consequences of Briony’s actions. Robbie has enlisted and been posted to France. Cecilia is a nurse in London, and so is Briony, now 18 (played by Romola Garai), trying to atone for what she realizes was a tragic error.  It’s a complicated story – spanning years, countries and several characters – but it has been lovingly and thoughtfully translated to the screen by Joe Wright.

Let’s put this out there. This film broke my heart. Utterly and completely.  The performances, the cinematography, the score… all of it. It’s such a phenomenal film – so beautiful that, despite the fact that it devastates me  – I’d see it again and again.

Kiera Knightley plays upper class to perfection. Cecilia’s mannerisms, her way of speaking, her beauty and elegance casts a sort of spell on us (and Robbie as well). For all the upper class posturing and meanness that Cecilia often exudes – she’s desperately in love with Robbie. It’s such a classic and tense situation, that both leads play out so beautifully.  The sense of longing and loss that both Knightley and McAvoy are able to convey speaks volumes. Even though the story is told from Briony’s perspective, Cecilia and Robbie serve as my emotional core of the film.

Image The scene in the library exudes passion and love – And that green dress…it’s the best thing Keira’s ever worn on film, and in 2008 was voted the best film costume of all time in a poll commissioned by Sky Movies and In Style.

James McAvoy is astonishing in his portrayal of Robbie Turner.  McAvoy is so unbelieveably talented, and it always stuns me that he’s not a household name – he should be. McAvoy is a gifted actor and pours every bit of himself into Robbie Turner. In an interview, he stated that Robbie was one of the most difficult characters he’d ever had to play – and I believe it. It’s an exhausting piece of work that left me emotionally invested in the well-being and happiness of Robbie Turner.


The performance of an incredibly young Saoirse Ronan is the most poignant thing in this entire film. She was only 13 when filming began, and held such maturity in her role. You want to hate young Briony for her jealousy and lies – but feel oddly empathetic to her plight. She is the cause of the suffering of the two people she loves most in the world. She’s an absolute enigma – an angelic and haunting face (those eyes!) that carries so much deceit and pain. She earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her role.


The supporting cast is also impressive, with a young (and  relatively unknown) Benedict Cumberbatch as the horrible Paul Marshall, Juno Temple as the unfortunate Lola, and Brenda Blethyn as the heartbroken Grace Turner. All so great (especially Blethyn).

Much later in the film, there is a meeting of the three, only once, in London, that demonstrates to them what they have all lost.  The bittersweet remembrance of “what could have been” taints the entire second half of the film. Seeing Robbie and Cecilia together – each other’s anchors – it’s lovely, emotional, powerful, heartwarming  and upsetting all at once.


SPOILER ALERT. I don’t want to have to Atone for spoiling the film…

The ending of this film is so impactful. Given the choice – I would’ve liked to end this film with the slightly happier version of Briony confessing her lie and leaving Cecilia and Robbie to a life of happiness together. BUT…that’s not what we have in story. Vanessa Redgrave plays the grave and ill older version of Briony. Now an established and celebrated author – who wrote the story of Robbie and Cecilia. She reveals that the happy ending that the audience has so longed for, was in fact, another lie. A lie told to atone for her mistakes. Cecilia and Robbie never saw each other again – torn apart by a lie, and then war. Perhaps the most devastating of all, is that Briony will never be able to make right the wrongs of her past – but instead, creates a beautiful lie that she clings to as truth.


While the film is long, and rather dreary – the incredible acting and cinematography are worth the heartache. The film itself has nothing to Atone for.

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