Atonement: a Narrative Review

Atonement: a Narrative Review

In the early twentieth century a director called D. W. Griffith of the United States proved that film narratives can be improved by adjusting the way in which the film is put together (Bywater & Sobchack, 1989). Griffith developed ways to counteract the little dialogue there was in those days and intensify the drama and emotion he could provoke in his fictional films (Fabe, 2004). He had three main methods: utilising the foundations of “filmic” mise-en-scene with his cast, filming his movies more creatively and editing his films to add “complexity” (Fabe, 2004).

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Griffith’s filming methods have been passed on throughout the century and have not stopped short of Atonement, directed by Joe Wright (IMDB, 2009). This is a film whose narrative is portrayed using a variety of filming techniques including some of those initiated by Griffith. The cinematography will be analysed throughout this essay to distinguish how the setting, characters, costumes and ideologies illustrated the narrative of Atonement.

Atonement is a romantic film (Scott, 2007) in which Cecilia Tallis, (played by Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (played by James McAvoy) fall in love “despite their difference in social class” (Ebert, 2007). Nevertheless, their “new found love” (Wright, 2007) only lasts a day as Robbie gets falsely accused by Cecilia’s 13 year old sister Briony for “a crime he did not commit” (Wright, 2007). 13 year old Briony Tallis (played by Saoirse Ronan) believes that Robbie was the culprit because she had witnessed “erotic episodes” (Ebert, 2007) between Cecilia and him throughout the day.

Briony was convinced that he was a “sex maniac” (Wright, 2007). However, as Briony grows older she soon realises how she had misunderstood the situation and spends the rest of her life trying to “atone for … [the] tragic error” (Ebert, 2007). Throughout the rest of her life Briony writes a novel about what she did and how she tried to make amends but in real life she missed the oppurtunity as Robbie and Cecilia both died during World War 2.

The author of the novel ‘Atonement’ Ian McEwan says that Briony wrote the novel “to somehow keep [Robbie] alive for Cecilia so that she can reunite the lovers in her imagination and maybe get forgiveness that way” (Gill, 2007). A D. W. Griffith element (Fabe, 2004) that is significant in cinematography of the twenty-first century is mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene refers to the important aspects in front of the camera as opposed to the dependency of editing (Bywater & Sobchack, 1989).

Mise-en-scene in Atonement is pronounced by the film’s setting. The setting of each scene enhances the film narrative. For example, the opening scene of Atonement is set at an enormous English manor where 13 year old Briony walks briskly around the house in search for her mother. Griffith believed in creative photography to close the distinction between elements in real life and on camera (Fabe, 2004). The camera work in this scene heightens the atmosphere of the setting so that the audience can distinguish what mood is being depicted.

Atonement’s director of photography Seamus McGarvey states that they did this by “establishing a kind of restlessness and a creative energy that is shown in a kind of dynamism in the camera” (Gill, 2007). Ian McEwan recognises that the setting of this scene improves the narrative because it “takes us not only into the location but into the day,” he says (Gill, 2007). This day that McEwan refers to is important as it is the day that Robbie, Cecilia and Briony’s lives are changed. Another example of the setting improving the narrative by use of clever camera work is the final scene.

In this scene, during a television interview, geriatric Briony (played by Vanessa Redgrave) reveals the truth about her so called atonement to Robbie and Cecilia. She uncovers how she missed her chance to make amends but tries to give Robbie and Cecilia the life they deserved together in her novel. Atonement’s director Joe Wright used careful placement of the camera for Briony to unearth the truth in an intimate interview setting. “The cinematic equivalent of first person is interview,” says Joe Wright. He hoped “it would remove the veil of fiction” (Gill, 2007).

Wright means that he wants the audience of the film to see the transition between Briony’s fictional atonement and the truth revealing interview. This interview setting has been recognised as a definite contrast to the rest of the film settings which supports the narrative’s surprising ending. Griffith’s exaggeration of mise-en-scene (Fabe, 2004) involves characterisation (Bannister, 2009). Ian McEwan’s book characters were brought to life by Joe Wright and his film crew. These three main characters each played an important role in the film’s narrative.

Robbie appears to be the protagonist because he is the victim; he did not commit the crime. Joe Wright speaks honorably of Robbie by admitting that he would “love to be that honest and have that much integrity and that much honor” (Gill, 2007). Briony, however, is the antagonist who allows her imagination to take over, or is “fanciful” as Cecilia likes to call her, and cause an innocent man to go to jail. Saoirse Ronan who acted as 13 year old Briony says that she was also a “bit of a control freak” (Gill, 2007).

Cecilia is the agent (Bannister, 2009) of the film as she a reason why Briony “misunderstands” (Ebert, 2007) the situation and falsely accuses Robbie. Briony’s jealousy of Cecilia’s involvement with Robbie blocks her rationality resulting in Robbie’s conviction. Some preparation was put into building the characters of Atonement. For example, the one thousand soldiers at Dunkirk for the five minute steady-cam shot (Gill, 2007) had to be trained to look like they were soldiers. An armourer on the Atonement set called Nick Jefferies said that it took “five minutes to give them years of experience” (Gill, 2007).

The makers of Atonement helped the characters be created and portrayed affectively within the film’s narrative which is what Griffith emphasised as part of his mise-en-scene method (Fabe, 2004). Costumes is also a part of the mise-en-scene method Griffith believes strongly in (Fabe, 2004). In his review of Atonement published in the New York Times A. O. Scott accentuates the attractiveness of the clothes that the actors and actresses wear by stating that the English manor is “where trim dinner jackets and shimmering silk dresses are worn” (Scott, 2007).

Keira Knightley concurs by stating in the ‘Making Of Atonement’ that the “costumes are impeccable” (Gill, 2007). Atonement’s beautiful costumes were made by costume designer Jacqueline Durran and hair and make-up designer Ivana Primorac (Gill, 2007). Briony was the most important character to get right as there were three different actresses playing her throughout her life. Romola Garai who played 18 year old Briony says that the hair and make-up designer Ivana Primorac had “given Briony the same hair cut throughout the film and a distinctive mole” (Gill, 2007). We matched their eyelashes, matched their cheekbones [to] how a person would change,” says Primorac (Gill, 2007). The costume designer Durran said that because Briony was busy all day in the first scene she wouldn’t be worried about what she was wearing so Durran made her a dress “that was loose and comfortable so that it didn’t annoy her” (Gill, 2007). Robbie’s costume was not so complicated as they “shouldn’t look like they’re following any particular kind of style,” says Durran, “apart from a university student of the 30s who’s interested in gardening and wearing working clothes” (Gill, 2007).

Cecilia’s evening dress was remarkable and had “an almost-not-there feel about it,” says Durran, “Joe [Wright] wanted something that would flow when she was running or when she was answering the door to Robbie” (Gill, 2007). Clearly the makers of Atonement knew how important costumes are to a film. They matched them to the character accurately depending on what the characters’ personalities were like or what the characters were doing at the point of the narrative.

The makers of Atonement demonstrated some ideologies to create tension between characters to enhance the narrative. Some ideologies in this film are based entirely around social class of the 1930s. The ideology that poor people are not trustworthy was demonstrated by the upper class in this film. This is a reason why Robbie was believed to be the criminal because he was a working class gardener who did not receive the respect that he deserved even after attending Cambridge University (Wright, 2007).

When Briony tries to repent for what she did Robbie exclaims “you just assumed that for all my education, I was still little better than a servant, still not to be trusted” (IMDB, 2009). Another example of this ideology is where Cecilia and Robbie assume that because Robbie did not commit the crime then it must have been the other young man that worked there. Cecilia wanted Briony to tell everyone “whatever [she] could remember of what Danny Hardman was doing that night” (IMDB, 2009). They were wrong. Briony knew that it was Cecilia’s and her own older brother’s friend, Leon (Wright, 2007).

These ideologies were displayed accurately as they generated renewed tension between the three prominent characters of Atonement’s narrative: Briony, Robbie and Cecilia. The setting, characters, costumes and ideologies of Atonement illustrated the film’s narrative affectively using cinematography throughout the scenes. These were part of D. W. Griffith’s methods of intensifying film narrative which he developed to counteract the small amount of dialogue there used to be in film and provoke more emotion in his films by making the drama more ntense (Fabe, 2004). These methods were used in this film which Griffith had relied heavily on during his own film making during the early twentieth century (Fabe, 2004). Mise-en-scene (setting, characterisation and costume) and creative camera work (characterisation and setting) were two of Griffith’s methods that were used the most in Atonement by Joe Wright (IMDB, 2009). Griffith’s ways of improving film narratives certainly assisted in the making of this romance Atonement (Scott, 2007). Bannister, M. (2009).

Narrative [PowerPoint Presentation]. Hamilton, New Zealand: Waikato Institute of Technology: Bachelor of Media Arts. Bywater, T. & Sobchack, T. (1989). Introduction to film criticism: major critical approaches to narrative film. (first edition. ). New York: Longman. Gill, K. (Producer). (2007). The making of Atonement. Atonement. [DVD bonus feature]. Australia: Universal Pictures. Ebert, R. (2007). Atonement. Retrieved April 27, 2009, from http://rogerebert. suntimes. com/apps/pbcs. dll/article? AID=/20071206/REVIEWS/712060301/1023

Fabe, M. (2004). Closely watched films: an introduction to the art of narrative film technique. (first edition. ). California: University of California. Scott, A. O. (2007, December 7). Lies, guilt, stiff upper lips. The New York Times. Retrieved April 27, 2009, from http://movies. nytimes. com/2007/12/07/movies/07aton. html The Internet Movie Database (IMDB). (2009). Atonement (2007). Retrieved April 27, 2009, from http://www. imdb. com/title/tt0783233/ Wright, J. (Director). (2007). Atonement [DVD film]. Australia: Universal Pictures.


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