If Atonement isn’t the best movie ever made, it’s at least the best movie I’ve ever seen. I saw the film three times in the theater and innumerable times since then. Yet watching it recently, it was like seeing the movie for the first time. This is an amazing film which rewards repeat viewings, expertly crafted from top to bottom. I have no qualms in saying that Atonement is a perfect film. I can’t think of one thing that the movie does wrong, and about a hundred things that it does so, so right. Four years after writing my short review of the film on Facebook, I can just as easily understand the emotions that I felt at that time:
This is the kind of movie that hits you hard, the kind that stays in your mind for months after you’ve seen it. This is the kind of movie that makes you say, “This is why I watch movies.”
Undeniably five stars. Unquestionably excellent.
It’s hard to take the film one piece at a time to describe the wealth of power that stands behind it. There is the music, which is the only thing that the Academy recognized, embarrassing themselves by awarding their top honor to any other film that came out the same year. When I describe my deep, abiding love for this film, one of the first things that I usually point to is the way that all of the pieces work together in a flawlessly organic way – there’s not a thing out of place or jarring, and the magnificent score by Dario Marianelli is just an appetizer. The film begins with a line of figurines growing in number as they lead to young Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), typing away on a typewriter. It will not be until a second (or third, fourth, et al.) viewing that you will understand the myriad levels of importance this simple opening scene contains, visually, symbolically. The music comes in, incorporating Briony’s typewriter sound until the two blend into one piece. Or take a breathtaking moment later on, as Robbie (James McAvoy) is led away by police due to an awful misunderstanding. His mother pounds on the police cruiser with an umbrella – THUMP, THUMP, THUMP – screaming, “Liar!” Briony watches out the window, eyes unblinking, and the pounding of the umbrella again works its way into the score before you even know what has happened.
Hell, it may be safe to say that the movie is a musical, in some ways. Or an opera. There are so very many scenes that are enhanced dramatically by the moving, aching score that accompanies it. One striking moment comes as Robbie tries in vain to produce a letter to explain to Briony’s sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) how he feels about her. There is a literal opera playing on a phonograph near him, cutting to images of him beginning letters, crumpling them up, writing them again, stopping short. Until, laughing to himself, he writes a short note that conveys his more base desires, thus setting into motion a chain of events that will lead to tragedy. Well, I suppose it’s not this that sets the events into motion. There are many disparate things that add together.
Which is another thing that the movie does so well. It all seems like fate on multiple viewings, as we know what will happen to the characters, but at the same time there are several different plotlines that are weaving in and out of one another. Briony’s troubles with her cousin, the unresolved tension between Cecilia and Robbie (which stretches back much further than the events of the movie), the weird air between Cecilia and a boy who helps around the house, the disturbing relationship that entrepreneur Paul Marshall builds with the cousin, the multiple half-conversations and misunderstandings which plague Briony’s vision of what is going on in the Tallis household. A lot of the credit for this goes to the remarkable novel which the movie is based on, written by Ian McEwan (he also adapted the book for the screen). In addition, a lot of the credit goes to director Joe Wright, who was able to bring all of these storylines together into a cohesive whole while giving each individual character a breath of life that many other movies would not be able to handle.
Which only makes me want to turn my attention to the actors. The three women who play Briony through the years of this epic film – Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave, respectively – are a marvel in the way that they perfectly capture the same exact character in differing times throughout life. But I’m ready to give a standing ovation to McAvoy and Knightley. It’s true that the directing was a huge boon to the tender romance that develops between the young couple (I’ve read that Wright painstakingly choreographed their passionate moment in the library), but the strength of the actors is a huge inspiration as well. The couple share the briefest of moments together, and yet they also maintain the most honest expression of love that I have ever seen – fighting their hearts in order to avoid pain, or inflicting it on the one that they love, while simultaneously wanting desperately to give in to their only desire. The pitch perfect scenes involving McAvoy and Knightley are too numerous to count. A scene by the fountain is too incredible to put into words, as the balance of power in their relationship shifts suddenly and dramatically before driving toward one of the sweetest moments in the movie. The library scene I mentioned before is startlingly erotic, and surprisingly explicit (though not in the conventional sense); once again, the way that the scene turns makes it a truly marvelous work.
And then my favorite, where Robbie and Cecilia meet for coffee after having been apart for some time. Robbie is going to war, they’re both trying hard not to think about the ramifications of this news. It’s difficult for them to even touch each other because the weight of their sadness hangs heavy over both of their heads. Their eyes strain with the difficulty of holding back tears. “I have to go soon,” Cecilia says. Without thinking, Robbie gasps, “Oh god.” It’s so small, so simple, and yet such a strong moment for the film. It’s because of these performances that I’m tempted to give McAvoy and Knightley a free lifetime pass. They each have directly contributed to a criminally under-appreciated masterpiece. There’s no way that they can match the highs of their work here.
I haven’t mentioned the famous long-take at Dunkirk, where Robbie and his pals descend ever deeper into the bowels of Hell, until the town they inhabit is literally being consumed in raging fire. I’ve grown desensitized to long-takes somewhat, but this one is a true joy to behold (notice the important use of music again, as a group of soldiers belt out a solemn hymn). The scene is magic, the horror growing as the men continue trekking toward the camera. The moment easily puts The Player and Children of Men to shame. With regard to the latter film, I recently changed my rating from 4.5 to a full 5-star rating and I felt good about that choice at the time.
Watching Atonement, though, I am reminded of what a truly five-star movie feels like. It sends shivers down my spine. It makes my heart hurt from the display of love and despair on-screen. It lights up my brain with the supple visuals (huge props to DP Seamus McGarvey, who helmed a stunning film) and over-lapping layers of narrative. It keeps me on the edge of my seat, despite having seen the movie more than a dozen times. It leaves me in complete awe.
I don’t know if Atonement is the best film ever made. How could I? What I do know is that it is a perfect film. I don’t even have to think about this: unquestionably five stars, unceasingly terrific.