Atonement is a 2007 film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, directed by Joe Wright, based on a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, and starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan.
Released in 2007 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.
In England in 1935, precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) lives on her family’s country estate with her mother and sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Cecilia is home for the summer from Cambrige where she had been studying with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy). She and Robbie have an uncertain relationship; neither is willing to act on it but a certain romantic chemistry exists between them. One day, Briony sees from her bedroom window an argument between Cecilia and Robbie at the fountain. Robbie accidentally broke an antique vase and a piece of it fell into the fountain. Angrily, Cecilia stripped to her underwear and dove into the fountain to retrieve it. Briony is confused about the sexual tension between the two of them.
The Tallises are being visited by young relatives from the north — the twins Pierrot and Jackson (Felix and Charlie von Simsin) and their 15-year-old sister, Lola (Juno Temple), whose parents are in the process of divorcing. Leon Tallis (Patrick Kennedy) brings his friend Paul (Benedict Cumberbatch) for dinner. Paul keenly follows Hitler’s political advance and predicts war. He plans to sell chocolate bars to the British military to give to their soldiers. While he tries to amuse Pierrot and Jackson, Paul and Lola flirt.
Embarrassed by his behavior earlier in the day, Robbie tries to write an apology note to Cecilia. One of the drafts includes a sexually charged declaration of his love for her which we will actually see on a tour of Stokesay Court. He then writes a more formal apology he intends to deliver to her. However, he accidentally gives the sexual note to Briony while walking to dinner at the Tallises that night; he gives her the note because he believes it will be less embarrassing if it comes from Briony instead of him. When he realizes what he has done, he calls out to Briony but she is too far away to hear him. Back in the house, she reads the note and is scandalized. She gives the note to Cecilia but later confides to Lola that she believes Robbie is a dangerous sex maniac. Lola has come to her with arm bruises that she accuses her twin brothers of giving to her but Briony ignores them.
Robbie arrives for dinner. He and Cecilia discuss the note and admit their love for one another. They make passionate love in the library but are discovered by Briony. At dinner, it is discovered that Pierrot and Jackson have run away. Everyone looks for them. While looking for them by a creek, Briony stumbles on Lola being raped by someone. He runs away into the darkness. Briony insists to first Lola and then the police that Robbie was the culprit and brandishes the sexual letter to Cecilia as evidence. Only Cecilia protests his innocence. When Robbie returns with the twins, he is arrested for rape. Tried and convicted, he is sent to prison. Four years later he is released into the British army and makes up part of the British Expeditionary Force that is sent to northern France in an attempt to halt the Nazi advance.
In northern France, Robbie and two fellow soldiers attempt to make their way to Dunkirk, where the remnants of the BEF are to be evacuated after the Nazis rout their forces and the French. He has a shrapnel wound in his chest. Several weeks earlier, before he left London, he saw Cecilia again. She remained true to him for four years and begs him to come back to her. She reveals that she has broken contact with her family over her love for Robbie and belief in his innocence. She gives him a photograph of a seaside cottage near Dover that they can retire to. It will give him strength as he struggles towards Dunkirk. Cecilia is a nurse in London. She learns that Briony, now 18 (Romola Garai) has decided not to study at Cambridge and is training to be a nurse herself. Briony knows that Robbie did not rape Lola, that it was Paul — to whom Lola is now engaged and who has become a millionaire selling his candy to the British army. Briony goes to see Cecilia to admit her guilt and state her willingness to do whatever it takes to atone for her sins and clear Robbie’s name. Robbie is in Cecilia’s apartment when she gets there. Although they are angry with her, they tell her what she needs to do to make things right. She agrees, then leaves as Cecilia and Robbie are intimate for one last time before he is shipped to France with the BEF.
In 1999, Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), now in her late seventies and dying of vascular dementia, is a famous novelist. Her new book, __Atonement__, will be published on her birthday. The foregoing narrative had been one she created for her book, as an act of atonement for what she did to Robbie and Cecilia. In real life, she never saw Cecilia after she left the family, and Cecilia and Robbie never had a last tender moment in her apartment before he left with the BEF. Instead, he died at Dunkirk of septicemia, 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.
Robbie and Cecilia walk down the beach on a bright, beautiful day. On the steps of the seaside cottage, they look at the beautiful white cliffs, then disappear inside.
Locations for the filming included the seafront in Redcar. The exterior of Aldwych tube station, a former station on the Piccadilly line closed in 1994, which stood in for Balham tube station where Cecilia eventally meets her fate.
All the exteriors and interiors of the Tallis family home were filmed at Stokesay Court, Onibury in, Shropshire, a Victorian house 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.
Other London locations used in the film 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 Square, Westminster, which is where we see Lola’s wedding. Parts of the St Thomas’s hospital ward interior and corridors were filmed at Park Place, Henley-on-Thames; the exterior of the hospital actually being University College London.