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Atonement is a 2007 film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel of the same name, directed by Joe Wright, and based on a screenplay by Christopher Hampton. It starred Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, was produced by Working Title Films and filmed throughout the summer of 2006 in England and France. Distributed worldwide by Universal Studios, it was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 7 September 2007, and in North America on 7 December 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.


The film comprises four parts, corresponding to the four parts of the novel. Some scenes are shown several times from different perspectives.

Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a 13-year-old girl from a wealthy English family, the youngest of three, and an aspiring writer. Her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is studying English Literature at Cambridge Universitymarker. The slightly older Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of their housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn), has recently graduated from Cambridge - his fees paid by Cecilia's father - and is now headed for medical school; he is spending the summer gardening on the Tallis estate. The ginger-haired Lola Quincey (Juno Temple), age fifteen, and her younger twin brothers, Jackson and Pierrot (Felix and Charlie von Simson), are cousins of Briony and Cecilia who are visiting the family amidst their parents' divorce. Lastly, Leon (Patrick Kennedy) Briony and Cecilia's brother brings home a friend named Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), who owns a chocolate factory that is acquiring a contract to produce army rations. The Tallis family is planning a special dinner, to which Leon happily invites Robbie, who accepts, much to Cecilia's annoyance.

Briony has just finished writing a play entitled The Trials of Arabella, which she describes being as about "the complications of love". Her cousins, however, are being unmanageable about staging the play, and she is considerably frustrated. Alone in her bedroom, she witnesses a significant moment of sexual tension between Robbie and her sister by the fountain, when her sister strips down to her underwear and dips into the fountain, to retrieve the lost part of a vase that Robbie has clumsily broken. Because Briony cannot hear what the two are saying, and has witnessed only a fraction of the scene, she misunderstands its dynamics, and the seed of her misplaced distrust in Robbie is sown.

Robbie writes several strained drafts of apology letters to Cecilia, including one, explicit and erotically-charged, that includes the word "cunt":

In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt.
In my thoughts, I make love to you all day long.

He does not, however, intend to send it and, chuckling to himself, sets it to one side.

On his way to joining the Tallis family celebration, Robbie asks Briony to deliver his letter — only to realise too late that he has mistakenly given her the prurient one. Briony secretly reads the letter and becomes still more suspicious of Robbie's intentions, later convincing Lola that he is a "sex maniac". She hands the letter, devoid of its envelope, to Cecilia, who is angry and embarrassed that she has read it.

That evening Briony encounters Cecilia and Robbie again, this time in what they have taken to be the seclusion of the library and where they are making love against a bookcase. The naïve Briony walks in to find them in the throes of sexual passion and falls under the misguided impression that Robbie is indecently assaulting her sister. At dinner, while Robbie and Cecilia secretly caress hands under the table, Briony is verbally aggressive toward Robbie but is cut short when her mother (Harriet Walter) tells her to fetch the twins. Briony finds a note on their bed declaring that, in their anguish at their parents' divorce and unhappiness in their new lodgings, they have run off back home.

Immediately the family members split up in search of the twins on the large estate. As Briony goes off alone into the darkness to find them, she stumbles upon a man in a dinner suit apparently raping Lola. On her arrival, the man dashes off into the darkness, and Briony runs to her cousin's aid. Lola, apparently traumatized, claims not to know the identity of her attacker — he covered her eyes —, but Briony is certain that it was Robbie.

Back at the estate, the police have been contacted. Briony insists that she "knows who did it". She tells everyone that it was Robbie, convinced due to the encounters between Robbie and Cecilia that she witnessed earlier in the day. In her testimony to the police, even though in reality she does not recall seeing the rapist's face, she claims that "I saw him; I saw him with my own eyes."

Finally, she shows the shocking letter to her mother, and now everyone believes her story — everyone, that is, except for Cecilia. "I wouldn't necessarily believe everything Briony tells you", she cautions her interviewers. "She's rather fanciful." Robbie presently returns from his search, the twins safely in tow and wholly oblivious to the rape. He is arrested and sent to prison.

The story moves forward four and a half years, (although the film opens in 1935 and the caption to the scene in France states that four years have passed, making this the summer of 1939 instead of 1940) to the opening phases of the Second World War. Robbie, having been convicted but released from prison on condition that he enlist as a private in the British Expeditionary Force, is hiding in a French attic with two fellow soldiers cut off from their units during the German invasion of France. Although, as an ex-prisoner, he is not eligible to be a commissioned officer (as would have been usual for a Cambridge graduate), his leadership skills and ability to speak French and read a map see him take the lead of his small group. The corporal, who formally outranks him, avoids confusion by addressing him as "guv".

Here the dénouement of the rape accusation is shown in dialogue and flashback. Before his deployment, Robbie was reunited with Cecilia in London, where they renewed their love and he made a promise to return to her. Like Cecilia, the eighteen-year-old Briony (now played by Romola Garai) has joined Cecilia's old nursing corps at St Thomas's in London (and thus given up her place at Cambridgemarker) in an attempt to do "something practical" — although Cecilia accurately suspects that she is really trying to atone for her blunder, "the full extent of which," she has admitted in a letter, "I'm only now beginning to grasp." Her attempts at contacting her sister go unanswered: Cecilia has refused contact, blaming her for Robbie's imprisonment. It turns out, indeed, that Cecilia had broken off contact with all her family, since they all believe in Robbie's guilt.

Briony soon wins a reputation at the hospital for her mystique and reticence, with her fellow nurses gossiping about the chances of her having a secret fiancé. On being pressed on the matter by her closest companion, Fiona, she denies the charge and claims further never to have been in love, although she does recall having had one crush: a flashback shows her deliberately jumping into a river in a bid to have Robbie save her. He duly obliges, and is furious. She remembers that "as soon as I told him I loved him, the feeling sort of disappeared".

With his two companions, the wounded and very ill Robbie finally arrives at the beaches of Dunkirkmarker, where he waits to be evacuated. After being told that all the soldiers are to leave the next day, he falls into a fitful sleep. Shortly thereafter, at the hospital at which she is a probationer nurse, Briony experiences the horror of the evacuation. In one scene, a mortally wounded French soldier (Jérémie Renier of L'Enfant) dies while she attempts to comfort him.

Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis
After seeing a newsreel depicting members of the Royal Family visiting Paul Marshall's chocolate factory, Briony attends the wedding of Marshall and her cousin Lola, and has a flashback of the night of the rape: as it turns out, it was Paul, not Robbie, whom she saw, with her own eyes, doing the deed. It is on this day that Briony summons up the courage to visit Cecilia's flat and apologise to her directly, recanting her accusation. Robbie, evacuated from Dunkirk, emerges from Cecilia's bedroom, awakened by the commotion of their argument, and angrily confronts Briony. Cecilia calms him, but the couple demand that Briony immediately tell her family and the authorities the truth, so that his name may be cleared. Robbie insists that she write to him precisely what happened, why she did it and give the details to a solicitor. Cecilia and Robbie appear to have long suspected that a certain servant boy, Danny Hardman, was the culprit, but Briony reveals that she knows it to be Paul Marshall, who, now married to Lola, cannot be implicated in a court of law by his wife.

The film suddenly shifts forward to 1999, when an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), interviewed on television (by Anthony Minghella) about her latest novel Atonement, is overcome with emotion and memory. She reveals that she is dying of vascular dementia, and that this novel will be her last, but that it is also her first, as she has been drafting it intermittently since her time at St Thomas's. It is then revealed by Briony that Robbie had died at Dunkirk of septicemia whilst waiting to be evacuated. Cecilia died a few months later when a German bomb burst a water main and flooded the subway tunnel in which she and other Londoners had taken refuge during the Blitz. Briony hopes that, by reuniting them, she gives them the happy conclusion to their lives that they deserved and her readers the hope that everyone needs to survive.

The film closes with a scene of simple, seaside bliss between Cecilia and Robbie, together at long last. The scenery of the English cliff-side beach around them echoes that shown on a postcard that Cecilia gave Robbie on his departure for duty, as a promise that they would be together some day.


  • Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis, the elder of the two Tallis sisters. Originally intended to play 18-year-old Briony, Knightley was the first reported to have landed one of the starring roles in Atonement, having previously worked with Wright on the cinema adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice (2005). With the director and Knightley unable to agree over which character the actress should play, Wright finally decided on Cecilia "because she has none of that Elizabeth Bennet vibe." In preparing 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 as Robbie Turner, son of the Tallis family housekeeper with a Cambridgemarker education courtesy of his mother's employer. Having refused previous offers to work with Wright, McAvoy was the director's first choice: producers met several actors for the role, including Jake Gyllenhaal, but McAvoy was the only one offered the part. He fitted Wright's bid for someone who "had the acting ability to take the audience with him on his personal and physical journey". The actor describes Robbie as one of the most difficult characters he has ever played, "because he's very straight-ahead".
  • Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis (age 13), the younger Tallis sister and an aspiring novelist. Twelve-year-old newcomer Ronan was not cast until casting director Jina Jay came across her following many unsuccessful auditions around Great Britain. McEwan called her performance "remarkable": "She gives us thought processes right on-screen, even before she speaks, and conveys so much with her eyes." Ronan received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
  • Romola Garai as Briony Tallis (age 18): Following Abbie Cornish's refusal, backing out due to scheduling conflicts with Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), she was obliged to adapt her performance's physicality to fit the Briony appearance that had already been decided upon for Ronan and Redgrave. She spent much time with Ronan, watching footage of her to approximate the way the younger actress moved.
  • Vanessa Redgrave as Briony Tallis (age 77): Everyone's ideal to play the oldest Briony, Redgrave was the first approached (although she was not cast until Ronan had been found), and committed herself to the role after just one meeting with Wright. She, Ronan and Garai worked together with a voice coach to keep the character's timbre in a familiar range throughout the film.
  • Harriet Walter as Emily Tallis, the matriarch of the family. Both Emily Watson and Kristin Scott Thomas were approached to play the role of Emily Tallis before the role went to Walter.
  • Patrick Kennedy as Leon Tallis, the eldest of the Tallis siblings.
  • Brenda Blethyn as Grace Turner, Robbie's mother and the Tallis family housekeeper.
  • Juno Temple as Lola Quincey, the visiting 15-year-old cousin of the Tallis siblings.
  • Charlie and Felix von Simson as Jackson and Pierrot Quincey, Lola's nine-year-old twin brothers.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch as Paul Marshall, a visiting friend of Leon Tallis and chocolate manufacturer millionaire.
  • Daniel Mays as Tommy Nettle, one of Robbie's brothers-in-arms.
  • Nonso Anozie as Frank Mace, another fellow soldier.
  • Jérémie Renier as Luc Cornet, the fatally wounded and brain-damaged French soldier whom the eighteen-year-old Briony comforts on his death bed.
  • Anthony Minghella as the Interviewer.


The film was produced by Working Title Films and filmed throughout the summer of 2006 in Great Britain and France. The initial Dunkirk panorama includes an a capella rendition of "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind", a hymn by American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier.


Locations for the filming included the seafront in Redcarmarker; Streatham Hillmarker, South London (standing in for Balhammarker, Cecilia's new home after becoming estranged from her family); Stokesay Courtmarker near Craven Armsmarker; and Grimsbymarker.

All the exteriors and interiors of the Tallis family home were filmed at Stokesay Courtmarker, Oniburymarker, Shropshiremarker, a location found in the pages of an old copy of Country Life magazine. This Victorian mansion was built in 1889 by the glove manufacturer John Derby-Allcroft and is still privately owned. London locations included Great Scotland Yard and Bethnal Green Town Hall, the latter being used for a 1939 tea-house scene, as well as St John's, Smith Squaremarker, Westminstermarker, which served as location for Lola's wedding. The scenes from the 1940 Balham stationmarker were filmed in the former Piccadilly Line station of Aldwychmarker, which was closed in the 1990s. Parts of the St Thomas's hospital ward interior and corridors were filmed at Park Placemarker, Henley-on-Thamesmarker; the exterior of the hospital actually being University College Londonmarker.

While the third portion of Atonement was entirely filmed at the BBC Television Centremarker in Wood Lanemarker, the beach and cliff scene first shown on the postcard and later seen towards the end of the film were filmed at the Seven Sisters, Sussexmarker, more precisely at Cuckmere Havenmarker which is incidentally quite near to Roedean Schoolmarker, which Cecilia was said to have attended. Scenes in the French countryside were filmed in Coatesmarker and Gedney Drove End, Lincolnshiremarker; Walpole St Andrew and Denver, Norfolkmarker; and in Maneamarker and Pymoremarker, in Cambridgeshire. The scenes shot in Redcar include a remarkably lengthy tracking shot of the seafront as a war-torn Dunkirkmarker and a scene in the local cinema on the promenade.

Another location used in the making of the film was the Lincolnshire town of Grimsbymarker. The Dunkirk street scenes used in the film were shot at the Grimsby ice factory on Grimsby docks. Both the interior and exterior are present in the film, trailers, and the deleted scenes on DVD.


The film opened the 2007 Venice International Film Festival, making Wright, at 35, the youngest director ever to be so honoured. The film also opened the 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival. Atonement was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 7 September 2007, and in North America on 7 December 2007. Worldwide distribution was managed by Universal Studios, with minor releases through other divisions.


Critical reception

The film has received positive reviews from American and international film critics. As of 18 January 2008, the review site Rotten Tomatoes records that 83 per cent of 196 critics gave the film positive reviews, with a consensus that "Atonement features strong performances, brilliant cinematography, and a unique score. Featuring deft performances from James MacAvoy and Keira Knightley, it's a successful adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel." On other review sites, Metacritic records an average score of 85%, based on 36 reviews.

The American critic Roger Ebert gave it a four-star review, dubbing it "one of the year's best films, a certain best picture nominee." In the movie review television program, At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper, Richard Roeper gave the film "thumbs up" adding that Knightley gave "one of her best performances". As for the film, he commented that: "Atonement has hints of greatness but it falls just short of Oscar contention."

Keira Knightley attending the première of Atonement, in Leicester Square, London

In Britain, the film was listed as number 3 on Empire Magazine's top 25 films of 2007. The Australian edition of Empire gave it a five-star review, praising the intelligent directing by Wright in the second half of the film, where he demonstrates "storytelling and technical flair to match his ability with actors". Time magazine's Richard Corliss named the film one of the Top 10 Movies of 2007, ranking it at number four. Corliss praised the film as "first beguiling, then devastating", and singled out Saoirse Ronan as "terrific as the confused 12-year-old."

The film has received numerous awards and nominations, including 7 Golden Globe nominations, more than any other film nominated for the 65th Golden Globe Awards, and winning two of the nominated Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture Drama. The film also received fourteen BAFTA nominations for the 61st British Academy Film Awards including Best Film, Best British Film and Best Director, seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and the Evening Standard British Film Award for Technical Achievement in Cinematography, Production Design and Costume Design, earned by Seamus McGarvey, Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran, respectively. Atonement also ranks 442nd on Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time.

Top ten lists

The film appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2007.

Box office

The film was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 7 September 2007, and has grossed £11,557,134. It was also given a limited release in North America on 7 December, and grossed $784,145 during its opening weekend, posting a per-theatre average of $24,504 in 32 theatres. The film has now grossed $50,927,067 in the US and $129,266,061 worldwide.



Atonement has been named among the Top 10 Films of 2007 by the Austin Film Critics Association, the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Online, the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, and the Southeastern Film Critics Association.


Home media

Atonement Region 2 DVD was released on 4 February 2008, and the HD DVD edition followed on 11 March 2008. The Region 1 DVD and HD DVD/DVD combo editions (USA/Canada) were released on 18 March 2008.

See also


  1. The play may be viewed as an echo of the themes and events of the film, which is itself a chronicle of the complications of love. "The princess was well aware of his remorseless wickedness," Briony writes. "But that made it no easier to overcome the voluminous love she felt in her heart for Sir Romulus" — a quandary replicated in Lola's attraction to Paul (who, like Romulus, has a "luxuriant mustache") and her subsequent marriage to him. "So heroic in manner he appeared, so valiant in word, no one could guess at the darkness lurking in the black heart of Sir Romulus Turnbull: he was the most dangerous man in the world." Also alluded to is Briony's attention-seeking near-drowning: "his young ward dived again and again into the depths of the lake, in search of the enchanted chalice [...]." In Briony's case, that chalice (a soon-to-be-poisoned one) is Robbie's love.
  2. This may well be the root cause of her subsequent romantic philosophy: "Love is all very well, but you have to be sensible."
  3. Cast, Crew and Production Details at Internet Movie Database
  4. Atonement (2007) - Filming locations
  5. The original McEwan novel mentions the house as having been built in the same period.
  6. Corliss, Richard; "The 10 Best Movies"; Time magazine; 24 December 2007; Page 40.
  7. Corliss, Richard; "The 10 Best Movies";
  9. Travers, Peter, (19 December 2007) "Peter Travers' Best and Worst Movies of 2007" Rolling Stone. Retrieved 20 December 2007
  10. 2007 Austin Film Critics Association Awards
  11. 2007 Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards
  12. 2007 National Board of Review
  13. 2007 New York Film Critics Online Awards
  14. 2007 Oklahoma Film Critics Association Awards
  15. 2007 Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards
  16. [1]
  17. Best Romance film at Rotten
  18. 2007 Houston Film Critics Society Awards
  19. 2007 Golden Globe Awards
  20. 2007 International Film Music Critics Awards
  21. 2007 Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards
  22. 2007 London Film Critics Circle Awards Results
  23. Nilsson Awards: 6th Annual Nilsson Award Nominees for the Most Outstanding Filmmaking of 2007
  24. 2007 Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards
  25. 2007 San Diego Film Critics Society Awards
  26. 2007 Satellite Awards
  27. 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival
  28. 2007 Art Directors Guild
  29. 2007 American Society of Cinematographers Awards
  30. 2007 British Academy Film Awards Nominations
  31. 2007 Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards
  32. 2007 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards
  33. 2007 Costume Designers Guild
  34. 2007 IFTA Awards
  35. 2007 London Film Critics Circle Awards
  36. 2007 Golden Reel Awards
  37. 2007 Online Film Critics Society Awards
  38. 2007 St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association Awards
  39. 2007 USC Libraries Scripter Awards
  40. Focus Features Atonement Awards
  41. DVD Release on The New York Times
  42. Universal official statement for Atonement DVD

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