Literature / Atonement

Atonement is a 2001 book written by Ian McEwan about love, war, writing, guilt and, well, atonement.

It was adapted into a 2007 film of the same name, directed by Joe Wright and based on a screenplay by Christopher Hampton. It was produced by Working Title Films and filmed throughout the summer of 2006 in England and France, starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. Distributed worldwide by Universal Studios, with minor releases through other divisions, it was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on September 7, 2007, and in North America on December 7, 2007.

Atonement opened the 64th Venice International Film Festival, making Wright, at the age of thirty-five, the youngest director ever to open the event. The film also opened the 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival.

The film won an Oscar for the Best Original Score at the 80th Academy Awards, and was nominated for six others, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Saoirse Ronan). At the 61st British Academy Film Awards, it won the Best Film of the Year and the Production Design award.

As for the plot, it's relatively simple. Briony Tallis, a young writer thinks her older sister Cecilia is being sexually harassed by her childhood friend Robbie Turner, also the son of her family's housekeeper. The two are in fact considering a consensual relationship. Unfortunately for them, everything goes to hell and stays there.

This book and film provide examples of:

  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Briony (played by the blonde Saoirse Ronan) is described as having dark hair in the book.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: When Briony is slashing nettles, she attributes to Lola the sins of Pride, Gluttony, Avarice and unco-operativeness.
  • The Atoner: Briony. But only in her book does she make explicit atonement. It's left more ambiguous in real life, where such clean, neat endings are not always found.
  • Bitch Alert: Briony from the scene where she tries to get her cousins to rehearse her play.
  • Bookends: The performance of The Trials of Arabella.
  • Boxed Crook: Robbie joins the army rather than stay in prison.
  • Break the Haughty: A rare self-inflicted example. After Briony realises what she's done, she turns down an offer to go to Cambridge and becomes a nurse during the War.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: The actor playing Leon, Cecilia and Briony's brother, believed that Leon and Cecilia's relationship had elements of this; director Wright commented that he wasn't sure he agreed with him on that, and speculated it may have been because so many of Ian McEwan's other novels have incest in them. Nonetheless there are a few moments in the film (and another in a deleted scene) that hint at this idea.
  • Country Matters: The word is actually a plot point in both the book and the film.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Cecilia's body floating in the flooded underground.
  • Decoy Protagonist: One would be forgiven to think that Cecelia and Robbie are the main characters of the film (especially from the promotional materials), but really it's Briony.
  • Died Happily Ever After: Cecilia and Robbie: it's hinted at in the end of the movie, but never stated in the novel
  • Dies Wide Open: Nettle doesn't close Robbie's empty eyes.
  • Distant Finale: A depressing one indeed.
  • Downer Ending: Both Robbie and Cecilia die.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: In the book, Briony openly states that there was no way she could end the story with the lovers dead, so she put in a happy ending. She furthermore tells the reader not to wonder what really happened. The movie makes it clear that Robbie dies of septicemia and Cecilia is killed in a bombing.)
  • False Rape Accusation: What drives the plot.
  • Fix Fic: In a way, the whole book is Briony doing this in-universe.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: While working as a nurse during the war, Briony tends to a French soldier wounded in the head. He mistakes her for an English girl he met in his childhood, but Briony plays along because she knows he's suffering. When he asks if she loves him, Briony says that she does (both the book and the movie makes it clear that Briony truly did, even if it was just for a few seconds). The soldier dies a minute later.
  • Gentlemen Rankers: Robbie's upbringing qualifies him for an officer rank, but he is forced to be a private because of his criminal record.
  • The Hero Dies: Both Robbie and Cecilia themselves at the end.
  • Heel Realization: Briony's 'discovery' that Robbie was innocent.
  • Hope Spot: For the audience. Robbie living in London with Cecilia makes the audience believe that he made it, that he got evacuated, Briony atones herself and everything goes back to somekind of normality. Only in the end we find out that all of this just happened in Briony's fantasy and both lovers died in 1940.
  • Irrevocable Message: the obscene letter Robbie accidentally sends to Cecilia.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: The book is narrated by Briony, who considers telling the story to be her "atonement."
  • It's Not Porn It's Art: The rather lengthy sex scene in the book. Regarding the movie, Joe Wright states the love scene was inspired by a painting.
  • Karma Houdini: Paul Marshall.
  • Love Letter Lunacy: Robbie is frustrated trying to write a letter to Cecilia, and writes a vulgar, sexually charged one to work out this frustration. Afterwards, he writes a perfectly lovely one and gives it to his love's young sister to deliver. Guess what? He hands out the wrong one.
  • Miscarriage of Justice
  • The Oner: The continuous shot on the Dunkirk beaches in the movie. It took three tries, and the cameraman fainted afterward. At one point you can see an actor trip and recover.
  • The Penance
  • Together in Death: see Died Happily Ever After
  • Perspective Flip: Happens a couple of times, with Briony's and Cecilia's viewpoints being shown out of chronological order before intersecting.
  • Poor Communication Kills: A lot of the drama would probably have been sorted out if Robbie and Cecilia just told Briony they were in love.
  • Rape as Drama: The assault on Lola.
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: What kicks off the couple's infatuation. Cecilia dives for a vase into a fountain in her clothes.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog
  • Snicket Warning Label: The interview at the end. The story before that was sad enough, but after the interview it's tragic.
  • Trading Bars for Stripes: Robbie is forced to join the army to avoid a prison sentence.
  • Tsundere: Cecilia is Type A for Robbie who is actually Type B for her. Ironically, his rude letter helps them confirm their feelings for one another.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Briony. She is telling the story as a novelist several decades in the future, and (in the film) explains that a divergence from reality began at the Dunkirk evacuation.
  • Uptown Girl: Robbie and Cecilia's relationship at the start.
  • Wall Bang Her: Cecilia and Robbie in the library.
  • War Is Hell
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Word Of God has it that Briony creates such a mess because she's so goodly and so certain of herself. Probably also qualifies as Lawful Stupid.
  • What Beautiful Eyes: James McAvoy got the part as Robbie Turner because the character is described as having eyes of optimism, and so does James, according to its director.
    Joe Wright: He has his eye on a very bright horizon.
  • Wolverine Publicity: For the official Japanese poster, Keira Knightley is much more noticeable than her male co-star, even though James McAvoy has the most screen time.
  • Yandere: Briony for Robbie, at least her younger self. Jumping into a river to see if he would rescue her is one of the smaller things she did.