Just over ten years after Atonement was released, it remains a triumph of film-making and storytelling. It’s an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s heart-wrenching 2001 novel, and his sensual writing is expertly translated onto screen by director Joe Wright. Set across three different periods of time, it begins in the 1930s. We follow Briony Tallis, a precocious 13-year-old who aspires to be a writer. That summer, she witnesses something that she doesn’t understand between her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the family’s gardener. The false accusation that she makes has consequences for all three of their lives and as the title suggests, Briony spends the rest of her life consumed with guilt and trying to make up for it.
One aspect of the film that sets it apart is the cinematography and its use of colour to convey mood. In the first part of the film, set at the opulent Tallis estate, it is the height of summer and the garden is lush and sprawling. The colour green is prominent in this part of the film, complimented by muted pastels and natural tones. You can almost feel the heat winding through the grass and out of the screen. Cecilia (Keira Knightley) dresses in light, floaty fabrics that ripple as she walks. Briony, played by the astonishing Saoirse Ronan, wears blues and greens that reflect the house and grounds. For this section, a blue toned filter (created by fixing a stocking over the lens of the camera) was used to create the sweltering, dream-like atmosphere.
All of Cecilia’s early outfits are beautiful, and one of the most iconic is the green dress that she wears on the night that Briony falsely accuses Robbie of sexual assault. The emerald fabric cascades like water; backless, elegant and utterly unforgettable. It is the last of the beautiful warm colours that we see for a while.
The next section is set in wartime France and provides a stark contrast. The tone shifts and the colours used are harsher as we are brought into a very different world, rather than the memory of a summer past. This signifies time moving on, and circumstances changing.
The scenes of France and Dunkirk are by far some of the most startling, especially in contrast to the beautiful house and gardens that are central to the first part of the film. The colour red is introduced into the palette; a constant reminder of the blood being spilt in the war. One of my favourite scenes, and one that sticks in the mind, is a five-minute-long, continuous tracking shot of Dunkirk being evacuated. The camera weaves through soldiers on the beach capturing the chaos and confusion of war. The air is smoky; the colours are muted and there is an indescribable sense of sadness.
The sombre colour scheme changes again in the last scene where Briony imagines a life that could have been in a beach setting, with colours that are bright and full of life. Water and nature are key throughout Atonement. At the start, we have the abundant Tallis gardens, the vast fountain and the river that Robbie jumps in to save Briony. In the middle, there are the poppy fields and orchards of France and the crashing waves at Dunkirk. Ultimately, the film ends on a beach. Throughout, the relentless click of Briony’s typewriter is woven into the music, like the film’s pounding heartbeat.
The combination of stunning cinematography, exceptional acting and an expertly written, well-paced script makes Atonement a gripping film. It covers universal themes, like love, loss and regret. The story of star-crossed lovers is not a new one, but it never fails to capture the imagination. If you haven’t already seen it and you enjoy beautiful movies, this is definitely one for you!