Atonement

Despite being aware of praise for Joe Wright’s Atonement, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s celebrated novel, I’d given it a miss until now, partly because of a general ambivalence towards heritage period pieces, and partly because I arrogantly assumed that I knew exactly what kind of film this was and that, as a result, I could skip it. Happy to be wrong: rather than simply being a wartime weepie, Atonement is also a smartly-edited piece of work that repeatedly asks us to question what we see, in much the same way that the book asks the reader to question the reliability of the narrator and the written word. It’s set up by some well-mounted sequences at the beginning involving Saoirse Ronan’s character Briony and developed in the subsequent acts, which see Keira Knightley’s Cecilia and James McEvoy’s Robbie thwarted as they seek a life together. Having watched Mrs Miniver‘s pared back treatment of the Dunkirk evacuation the other day, it’s fascinating to see how it’s treated here. DP Seamus McGarvey’s long, single take along the beach, with all its surreal and disturbing sights, is thrilling, bravura and superbly choreographed cinema; coincidentally I’m reading a book of accounts of Dunkirk by survivors at the moment, and much of what you see in this scene correlates with those first hand testaments, although the lack of bombing and the yellow, smoky tint lends the sequence a dreamlike quality that makes perfect sense given later revelations. It’s well-acted, too; Ronan is excellent in an early supporting role, Benedict Cumberbatch is eminently hissable as an oily businessman profiting handsomely from the war, and the two leads are very good indeed. (****)