A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Atonement is an adaptation of Ian McEwan's best-selling novel set in pre-WW II England. It deals with themes -- including adolescent immaturity, class differences, lying, and passion -- that are too complex for all but the most mature teens to really be able to grasp and put in context. There are a couple of sexual situations, and the extended scene of the evacuation from Dunkirk is bloody and disturbing. A particular "bad" word ("c--t"), used out of desire instead of anger, is shown in typeface several times throughout the film. Other language includes "s--t" and "f--k"; there's also social drinking and period-accurate smoking.
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What's the story?
Based on the best-selling novel by English author Ian McEwan, ATONEMENT is an epic love story about Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of a rich English family's housekeeper, and upper-crust beauty Cecelia Tallis (Keira Knightley). Robbie, who was sent to Cambridge on the Tallis family's benevolent dime, secretly admires Cecilia. Cee's 13-year-old sister Briony, a fabulist who lives in her own girlish world of plays and poems, harbors a crush on Robbie, which leads her to misinterpret a steamy moment between Cee and Robbie as an attack. Fueled by a shocking love letter draft that Robbie unintentionally sends to Cee, Briony accuses Robbie of an unrelated sexual crime. And suddenly the film, like the book, skips ahead five years, as Robbie -- now an ex-con soldier -- and two other men walk through war-torn France to the pivotal evacuation at Dunkirk. Robbie is just one of tens of thousands of men waiting to get back to England -- with just his letters from Cee and the memory of their stolen embraces to give him comfort. As in the book, as the movie nears its end, viewers meet an elderly Briony, convincingly played by Vanessa Redgrave, who still wears the same hairstyle and figureless dresses sported by the 13-year-old Ronan. She's finally gotten a chance to fully make up for her adolescent mistakes.
Is it any good?
Knightley and McAvoy have enough chemistry to make their scenes sizzle, and McAvoy in particular breaks out as an actor destined for leading-man status. His boyish looks allow him to be forceful and vulnerable at the same time, and he's surprisingly attractive -- but not in an overwhelming Brad Pitt way that distracts from his performance. Wright and Knightley (who also starred in his Pride & Prejudice) also seem to understand each other, and if a third film results from the pairing, it will be quite clear that he's found his professional muse.
McEwan's novel isn't easy to translate onto the big screen. The book is about the power of words, the blurry line between fantasy and truth, and the consequence of not understanding the meaning of words or sexual attraction. But Atonement director Joe Wright, who made 2006's Oscar-nominated Pride & Prejudice, does an admirable job of creating a faithful adaptation that resonates with viewers, whether they're familiar with the book or not.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the impact of Briony's lie. What misconceptions led her to think she saw Robbie committing a crime? What does the story convey about the power of words and the flexibility of truth? Older teens who are precocious readers may want to read the novel and discuss whether the film is an accurate, adequate adaptation.
- In theaters: December 6, 2007
- On DVD or streaming: March 17, 2008
- Cast: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai
- Director: Joe Wright
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.
- Last updated: February 26, 2021
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