Written as part of the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series hosted by Nathaniel at The Film Experience.
Watching Joe Wright's Atonement for the first time since seeing it in theaters in 2007 - and for the first time since reading Ian McEwan's novel - what impressed me most was how effortless everything felt. For all its formal rigor - it is as meticulous and careful as Briony Tallis's signature stiff walk - everything flows so elegantly, and feels as easy-breezy-beautiful as Keira Knightley smoking a cigarette.
But the film runs so much deeper than that, at every possible level. Jacqueline Durran's costumes (even beyond THAT stunner of a dress). Dario Marianelli's note-perfect score. Christopher Hampton's smart screenplay. Seamus McGarvey's lighting, framing, and camera movement. It's nearly impossible to believe that this was somehow considered an also-ran in the awards race in its year ("awards bait" MY. ASS. A well-made film is a well-made film).
As strong as the film is, though (that Dunkirk sequence, even beyond the justly famed long tracking shot, is just jaw-dropping), I always felt at a remove from it, something that was perhaps necessitated by the very literary coup de grâce which ends the novel, which is nearly impossible to translate to film.
I say "nearly", because the film has an ace up its sleeve in Vanessa Redgrave's performance. Hampton finds probably the only way to make that ending work on film, but even still the whole thing rests on Redgrave's shoulders, and sturdier shoulders you simply will not find, no matter where you look. Without her, the movie falls flat on its ass.
But even then, she's given an incredibly solid base to work with thanks to Saiorse Ronan's smart, exquisitely directed performance. The film's first third is its best, largely because of how effectively Wright and McGarvey are able to frame everything simultaneously from a child's point of view AND the point of view of the adults whose actions she cannot help but wrongly interpret. Well, not actually simultaneously, but you understand what I mean. They allow us to get inside of the heads of people on both sides of the story almost infuriatingly well. Like in my best shot:
The first time we see it, it's incredibly easy to see it as Briony does, even though we're able to figure out what is really going on quite easily. And then, we rewind to see what happened from Cecilia and Robbie's perspective, and it's almost too hot for its own good. Seriously. This scene should be studied, WILL BE studied for ages as a master class in how to shoot, cut, and score a sex scene. The whole thing is bloody well perfect, putting over exactly the hot, breathy rush of secret, almost-public sex. But this one shot feels forbidden in a way that is almost scary, with the way he has her pinned with her legs spread, and the way one of her hands is gripping his hair but the other is wide open in his clutches. It is simple but complex, it's absolutely gorgeous to look at, it works on multiple levels - it is a perfect example of everything the film does so elegantly, effortlessly well.
I'm also pleased to say the film works much better for me now than it did back when I first saw it. And I almost picked this shot as Best, just because of how stunningly composed it is: