Atonement was the film that made me fall in love with cinema. There had been films before and innumerable films since, but nothing has ever approached that heart-stopping, locking-eyes-across-a-crowded-room kind of love that I felt five minutes into Atonement. I was besotted. Sitting in that otherwise unremarkable half-filled screening at an unremarkable cinema in my unremarkable hometown, I finally understood what cinema could do. 

It’s perhaps appropriate that Atonement would inspire such fervent, lifelong devotion given its own exploration of desire. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, the film takes place largely over two successive sections. The first depicts the passionate beginnings of a relationship between Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), the daughter of a wealthy landowner, and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family housekeeper. This pairing is torn apart mere hours after Cecilia’s young sister Briony (a career-defining performance by a 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan) accuses Robbie of rape. The second movement, taking place a few years later in the midst of the Second World War, sees Robbie and Cecilia briefly reunite before he is deployed abroad. 


Courtesy of: Universal Pictures

The duality of the film’s structure serves, much like Greta Gerwig’s recent Little Women, as a study of the nostalgia of young love and the intense, melancholic pain of loss. In the first half, Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship is in its tenuous, delicate first throes, marked by confusion, misunderstanding, and a palpable sexual desire in conflict with the repression that defined the early half of the twentieth century. 

Taking place over a mere few hours, the compressed timeline and director Joe Wright’s replaying of scenes from different characters’ perspectives makes every moment between the two heavy with significance. Shots of Cecilia from Robbie’s perspective as he walks past or of Cecilia checking her reflection, frustrated, before she goes outside to find him capture the heightened, awkward moments of the beginnings of love, where every minute – even apart from the other person – is rendered potent with unfulfilled desire.


Courtesy of: Universal Pictures

Through Cecilia and Robbie, Wright plays with the paradox of the anxious beginnings of profound attraction, and with the ways in which doubt and certainty can coexist. Eschewing sentimentality, Hampton and Wright opt for a naturalism of both script and direction: Cecilia, struggling to come to terms with her feelings, is mostly snappy with Robbie, snobbishly claiming they “move in different circles”, while Robbie tries to play off their interactions with humour. Their connection is mostly communicated through looks rather than through words: stolen gazes when the other is not looking or, conversely, Robbie staring at Cecilia when she emerges from the water, half-naked.

Indeed, it is the physical that largely defines Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship, and Wright masterfully balances the tension between the propriety of the period with their insurmountable attraction. In the aforementioned scene, Cecilia strips down to her slip in front of Robbie to retrieve a jug dropped into the fountain; afterwards, Robbie places a hand over the water she was in seconds before. Later, Robbie accidentally sends Cecilia a sexually explicit note, the strokes of a typewriter spelling out “c-u-n-t” across the screen. The period aesthetics of the film – swishing silk dresses, a grand English estate and gardens, and a hazy, nostalgic cinematography famously achieved by a pair of Christian Dior stockings over the lens – belie Atonement’s sexual potency, which finally culminates in a sex scene in the house’s grand library. Once more, Wright does not sacrifice tangible desire for decorum or romance, opting for fumbling hands, torn clothes and Cecilia spread-eagled uncomfortably against the library shelves.


Courtesy of: Universal Pictures

Through their interactions, Atonement depicts a relationship that is liberated from the class and sexual anxieties of its day, though it is these very anxieties that eventually condemn its unmitigated displays of desire. Briony’s lie is born out of a fear of sexuality: she tears open and reads Robbie’s note to Cecilia, afterwards labelling him a “sex maniac”. Having convinced both the police and herself that Robbie is guilty, Briony realises later that the crime was actually committed by an upper-class friend of the family, whose privilege protects him from the accusations thrown at Robbie.

Years later, writing to Cecilia while deployed in France on the front lines, Robbie vows not only to return to her but to become who he was on that night, promising, “I can become again the man who once walked across a Surrey park at dusk in my best suit, swaggering on the promise of life; the man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you in the library.” Yet Robbie’s return to the man he was has been rendered impossible, precipitated by Briony’s lie and cemented by the horrors of the war. 

Gone is the soft, Dior-dappled colour palette of their summer day together. Instead, Robbie’s letter to Cecilia voices over bleak, mud-coloured scenes of war that he and his fellow soldiers walk through. The only colour present is the flashing of orange as buildings burn to the ground. When they finally reach the beach of Dunkirk, the camera panning over broken bodies and bombed skeletons of buildings in a one-shot to rival Sam Mendes’ 1917, Robbie finds himself in – of all things – a cinema showing a black and white romance. Robbie’s beaten, grime- and blood-splattered silhouette shows starkly against the closeup of the actors’ embrace, now entirely isolated from expressions of love and passion. 


Courtesy of: Universal Pictures

The only time he and Cecilia meet after his arrest is in a tea room shortly before he is deployed. Cecilia only has a half-hour break from the hospital: their interactions, while deeply loving and committed, are also fraught with the trauma they have both undergone. Every moment stands in complete contrast to the library scene: surrounded by people, Cecilia attempts to hold Robbie’s hand but he uncertainly pulls it away. Yet, much like their initial courtship, doubt and certainty coexist. Strained, Robbie begins to lose faith, saying, “if all we have rests on a few moments in the library three and a half years ago, then I’m not sure…” before Cecilia pulls him back. Although they only have a few physical moments of passion, she knows it is enough, if not to unite them, then to keep them connected.

At its heart, Atonement is a film that grapples with the unknown. It is a film fascinated by storytelling and truth, and what it means to resort to easy narratives, and every aspect of it builds on this foundation of fragility and mistrust. Structurally, Wright plays with techniques of metafiction and non-linear storytelling; elsewhere, Dario Marianelli’s score fragments into discord and the threatening sound of Briony’s typewriter. Yet at its core are those few moments between Robbie and Cecilia on a summer day in 1935 – moments that encapsulate both the uncertainty and radical possibilities of desire, in the brief instant before the rest of the world intercedes. Watching them fall in love, I feel myself fall in love with Atonement all over again.