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). 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...
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