When Atonement begins, it’s lovely — the scenery is filled with light, people smile and kids are being kids. Something doesn’t click, though, and after a while, I understand why. The music would fit to a funeral scene.
So the film is ominous right from the start. Perhaps not enough, though, because I wasn’t ready for that ending — nobody could be.
Briony, the storyteller, is portrayed by three people over the film: Saoirse Ronan as child, Romola Garai as a young adult, and Vanessa Redgrave as an old woman. Redgrave’s performance, the shortest one, is incredible, and perhaps only shadowed by James McAvoy. McAvoy and Keira Knightley are perfect together from the first moment we see them lay eyes on one another, but McAvoy’s intensity is what sticks. I love him, but I have never seen him as great as he is as Robbie.
If the story we follow over many years can be called a love story, it’s a cruel one. Robbie and Cecilia are a beautiful couple, but they are immediately torn apart by a child’s jealousy. Briony is the kind of child that rubs you the wrong way right from the start. Even if you want to feel compassion, it feels a bit useless since she does a horrible thing. If she had been lovely from the start, we could forgive her. But just like Cecilie, we cannot.
The film is so gorgeous that it agitates you. What happens to Robbie and Cecilia in their worlds is so ugly; there is no right. Atonement is a story that sticks, sticks maddeningly and irritatingly, melancholy and infuriation all at once. Just when you think that you have made your peace, Redgrave comes and breaks your heart.
In the end, is nothing more but a story, and the ending is nothing but the story. We cannot just stick another ending to it when we are not happy how it wraps up, but in truth… they are both just works of fiction. Oddly, this is not comforting.