If you’ve seen the advertising campaign for this film, and the poster quotes, then you’ll know that all the best superlatives have already been taken — stunning, breathtaking, revelation, gorgeous and triumph among them. So I’ve had to get out the old thesaurus and come up with a few variations of my own — sensational, astounding, stupendous, engaging, magnificent, dazzling, heart-stirring and sumptuous are just a few that spring to mind.
Now I haven’t read the Ian McEwan bestseller, so I can’t judge it as an adaptation, but as a film Atonement is simply stunn… sorry, sensational. It's easily the best British film of the year, will walk away with a bunch of Bafta awards next year and yes, as everyone is predicting, it's sure to garner a few Oscar nominations to boot. And it truly deserves every accolade it has received. Yes, there's talk of acting nominations for Knightley (who I usually can't stand, but she's fantastic here) and McAvoy, but the real hero of Atonement is director Wright, who has managed to film what many regarded an unfilmable book. And he's shot it with a grand, sweeping style and grace that is surprising coming from a director making just his second feature film. I can already see the Hollywood types beating a path to his door.
Atonement is very literary and novel-like in its structure. The events of the first act, which is set in the English summer of 1935, are played out twice. We witness an altercation between Cecelia (Knightley) and the housekeeper's son, Robbie (McAvoy) — first from the point of view of Cecelia's sister, 13-year-old Briony (brilliantly played by Ireland's Saoirse Ronan) and then from the point of view of those involved. What the audience sees as romantic tension between the two is seen by Briony as something else entirely. Later, Briony reads a note Robbie has asked her to take to Cecelia for him, and later still she witnesses a private encounter between them. Although precocious young Briony likes to think of herself as quite mature — she's a budding writer! — she has a vivid imagination and has led a cossetted, privileged life, and doesn't yet fully understand the ways of the adult world. As you'd expect Briony misinterprets everything she sees, which tragically ends a budding romance and leads to Robbie being accused of a crime he didn't commit.
To say too much more would be to give away plot twists and turns that are best left to unfold on the screen, but parts of this film left me heartbroken. Oh, what joyous change it was to be so moved by a film after so many months of releases that promised us plenty but left us mostly numb. And it's a feast for the eyes as well as the heart. Atonement features some beautiful cinematography from Seamus McGarvey, especially that amazing much talked about five-minute single tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk, and one of the most beautiful and erotic sex scenes ever committed to film — in which the participants are fully clothed. On the acting front, the pouty Ms Knightley is less annoying than usual; rather likeable, actually, in her most grown-up role to date. This is only the second film in which I've really enjoyed her performance (the first was Bend It Like Beckham). McAvoy, who reminds me so much of a young Ewan McGregor, once again proves why his star is on the ascendent. This, along with The Last King of Scotland, must have surely put him square in Hollywood's sights. And also in Hollywood's sights by now must be novellist McEwan, who must be more than pleased with Hampton's adaptation of his work and Wright's transformation to the screen. This magnificent, astounding and engaging work is a stunning success on every level, and deserves to be seen by as big an audience as possible.