Atonement is a 2007 romantic war drama film directed by Joe Wright and starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch and Vanessa Redgrave. It is based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. The film chronicles a crime and its consequences over the course of six decades, beginning in the 1930s. It was produced for StudioCanal and filmed in England. Distributed in most of the world by Universal Studios, it was released theatrically in the United Kingdom on 7 September 2007 and in North America on 7 December 2007.
1935 England. 13-year-old Briony Tallis, the youngest daughter of the wealthy Tallis family who loves to write, is set to perform a play she has written for an upcoming family gathering.
Looking out of her bedroom window, she spies on her older sister, Cecilia, and the housekeeper's son, Robbie Turner, on whom Briony has a crush. She sees something: When a vase Cecilia holds breaks, Cecilia strips off her outer clothing in front of Robbie, climbs into the basin to retrieve one of the pieces.
Later when Robbie asks her to give a letter to Cecilia, Briony opens it, which describes Robbie's sexual desire of Cecilia.
At dinner time, Briony sees a piece of earrings in front of the library and enters it, finding her sister Cecilia and Robbie making love in front of a bookshelf.
Briony's 15-year-old cousin Lola and her twin brothers are visiting Tallis family at the time as their parents are getting a divorce. At dinner, the twin brothers are found missing and Paul Marshall, a visiting friend of Briony and Cecilia's older brother Leon Tallis suggests a search.
Briony goes out like everyone else. With a torch she finds Lola on the ground, being raped by a man, who flees upon being discovered. Briony is convinced that it was Robbie and testifies against him when asked by police. A confused Lola does not dissent. When Robbie finds the twins and returns with them, a police car is waiting to arrest him for raping.
Four years later, during the Second World War, Robbie has been released from prison on the condition that he joins the army and fights in the Battle of France. Toward the end of the War, Robbie is heavily wounded. Separated from his unit, he makes his way on foot to Dunkirk beach and waits to be evacuated.
What sustains him during the whole journey, is his memory of and love for Cecilia whom he has encountered again accidentally six months earlier in a hospital where Cecilia works as a nurse. Before bidding goodbye, Cecilia whispers to him: "Come back to me", like she did 4 years earlier when he was arrested.
Briony, now 18, has chosen to join Cecilia's old nursing unit at St Thomas' Hospital in London rather than go to the University of Cambridge. She writes to her sister wanting to meet her, but Cecilia refuses, having not forgiven her for her part in the investigation and conviction of Robbie.
Decades later, Briony is an elderly and successful novelist, giving an interview about her latest and last book, an autobiographical novel titled Atonement, as she is dying from vascular dementia. In the book she invented a happy ending for Cecilia and Robbie who finally are able to be together.
But in the interview, Briony confessed the truth: Cecilia and Robbie were never reunited: Robbie died of septicaemia at Dunkirk on the morning of the day he was to be evacuated and Cecilia died months later in the Balham tube station bombing during the Blitz. Briony hopes to give the two, in fiction, the happiness that she robbed them of in real life.
Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis
James McAvoy as Robbie Turner
Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis, aged 13
Romola Garai as Briony, aged 18
Benedict Cumberbatch as Paul Marshall
Joe Wright, director
Christopher Hampton, screen writer
Jacqueline Durran, costume designer
Dario Marianell, composer
The screenplay of the film was adapted from Ian McEwan's 2001 novel by Christopher Hampton.
After reading McEwan's book, Hampton, who had previously undertaken many adaptations, was inspired to adapt it into a script for a feature film. When Joe Wright took over the project as director, he decided he wanted a different approach, and Hampton re-wrote much of his original script to Wright's suggestion.
Director Joe Wright asked executive producers, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin, and co-producer Jane Frazer to collaborate a second time, after working on Pride and Prejudice in 2005, as well as production designer Sarah Greenwood, editor Paul Tothill, with costume designer Jacqueline Durran and composer Dario Marianelli, who have all previously worked together with Wright. In an interview, Wright states, "It's important for me to work with the same people. It makes me feel safe, and we kind of understand each other."
For Wright, casting became a lengthy process, particularly choosing the right actors for his protagonists. Having previously worked with Keira Knightley on Pride & Prejudice (2005), he expressed his admiration for her. In preparation for her role, Knightley watched films from the 1930s and 1940s, such as Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve, to study the "naturalism" of the performance that Wright wanted in Atonement.
James McAvoy, despite turning down previous offers to work with Wright, nonetheless remained the director's first choice. He fitted Wright's bid for someone who "had the acting ability to take the audience with him on his personal and physical journey". McAvoy describes Robbie as one of the most difficult characters he has ever played, "because he's very straight-ahead". Once Wright put both Knightley and McAvoy together, their "palpable sexual chemistry" immediately became apparent.
In addition, the casting of Briony Tallis also proved challenging, yet once Wright discovered Saoirse Ronan her involvement enabled Wright to finally commence filming.