After 15 years, Atonement Still Has 3 Things People Can’t Stop Talking About

Remembering why Joe Wright’s masterpiece was an instant classic

When Joe Wright’s Atonement opened in theaters December 7, 2007, the epic tale had already been dubbed a masterpiece. Reuters anointed it “an instant classic” when it opened the Venice Film Festival a few months earlier. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement is an epic story that moves from the manor houses of the British aristocracy to the horrors of World War II to contemporary London to explore how a single lie devastated the lives of three people—Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), and her younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan). To celebrate its 15th anniversary, we are highlighting three things that people still can’t stop talking about.

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Atonement | The Dunkirk Long Take

The Dunkirk Evacuation

Halfway through Atonement, Robbie finds himself among the troops trapped in Dunkirk in 1940. While this pivotal historical moment has been later covered in films like Dunkirk and Wright’s own Darkest Hour, the five-minute tracking shot has been described as one of “Greatest Movie Scenes Ever,” the “Greatest Long Takes in Film History,” and “the definitive depiction of Dunkirk.” Wright conceived of the scene as a way to keep his production on budget. Unable to afford multiple days of shooting, Wright staged a single shot with over 1,000 extras to capture the full emotion of the scene. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and Steadicam operator Peter Robertson follow McAvoy’s character along the beach to illustrate the full range of despair and hope experienced by British troops waiting to learn of their fate trapped at the water’s edge.

Caught in the Library clip from Atonement

The Green Dress

In an early scene in Atonement, a simple green dress worn by Knightley’s character manages to convey nearly all the historical and emotional meaning of the film, from the class difference experienced by Robbie, the housekeeper’s son, to the ineffable swell of desire that brings together Robbie and Cecilia. Wright instructed costume designer Jacqueline Durran to focus on “three criteria: lightness, length and shade of green.” Riffing off British fashion of the 1930s, Durran created an entirely original gown that managed to incorporate studied elegance and free-flowing form. To get the color just right, they created a special dye to produce the iridescent emerald green they wanted. “We all knew it was a pivotal moment, and it had to be a memorable dress, remembers Durran, adding, “it was a complete surprise how much it did resonate with people and how much it was picked out as a single look from the movie.” In 2008, the dress was voted the “Best Film Costume of All Time" in a poll conducted by the Sky Movies TV channel and In Style.

Atonement "Behind the Scenes"

Saoirse Ronan

In his review, Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers trumpeted, “Saoirse (pronounced “seer-sha”) Ronan is the film’s glory. Note to Oscar: This is acting of the highest order. Ronan simply takes your breath away.” Wright cast the then 12-year-old actress from a pile of videotaped auditions because of her perfect English. “She had this kind of intensity, dynamism, and willfulness,” remembers Wright. “When we got her to come over to London to meet and read with us, I was shocked to discover this little Irish kid who spoke with a thick Irish accent.” When she was nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as a young Briony, Ronan was completely unknown. After three more Oscar® nominations and jaw-dropping turns in films as diverse as Hanna, Lady Bird, and Mary Queen of Scots, Ronan is now recognized as one of finest actors of her generation.