This movie has recently become one of my favorites, which is pretty great considering I loathed the book the first time I read it. I was in high school and young and dumb and didn't like Briony because she seemed like a snot to me (in retrospect, she totally reminds me of... well, me in high school. So that explains a lot). I also read it when I had the stomach flu and that was a TERRIBLE IDEA. Seriously, do not read this book if you are the slightest bit nauseous. It's like getting punched in the stomach when you read it, and that's on a good, bright sunny day. But I reread it not long ago and realized that it is absolutely genius. And then I saw the movie.
This film is one of those rare, peculiar creatures that sneaks up on you like a stealthy jaguar and then, out of nowhere, tears your heart out and eats it in front of you. It is devastating. And yet I continue to enjoy it greatly. Why? It's one of the best adaptions of a book I've seen. It leaves very little out and does a rather good job expressing action that mainly occurs in the character's heads. Of course, it's impossible to do this perfectly but I think it does it very, very well.
I really love the use of lighting; it's toyed with, blinding the viewer at times, illuminating characters in warm halos, and hinting to the presence of camera at times (at the part where Briony finds Lola, a beam of light can be seen focusing on them, coming from behind Briony. The source is not from her flashlight and, as there is no one else at the crime scene, it seems to come from the camera). There are also a plethora of mirrors in this film. Mirrors are generally a reference to the camera in film, but the way Wright uses mirrors is so cool. When Paul Marshall first sees Lola and her brothers, he initially views Lola talking to her brothers as a reflection in a mirror he can see from standing in the hallway outside of the room. The viewer shares this view with him and, as he steps into the room, another mirror can be seen on the wall behind him. Actually, there's just a crapton of mirrors in this room, which is really interesting as this scene is super creepy... for reasons I'll get to shortly.
I am also a huge fan of the the soundtrack used throughout; it's pretty distinct and unconventional when compared to most Hollywood scores. It forms an ominous presence throughout, full of sounds that mimic the clatter of typewriter keys. Heavy, percussive piano and rapid string orchestration also comprise the music and provide an eerie, noticeable presence that helps distance the viewer from the action onscreen. During certain instances, such as Marshall’s arrival at the Tallis house, the music is unusually dark and heavy, providing both a use of foreshadowing narratively and insisting to the viewers to pay attention to what they see with caution and keep a skeptical eye. Also, the inclusion of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" is brilliant and poignant reminder of the losses of war, especially after the sickbed talk with Briony and the French soldier (total tearjerker, trust me).
But perhaps the number one reason this movie is brilliant is how uncomfortable it makes me. Why? Because Paul Marshall is one creepy dude. I would like to take a moment (or twelve) and fansquee over the talent of Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch and his ability in this role to make me absolutely loathe the guts of the character he portrays.
Because, somehow, marvelously, this guy:
Becomes this guy:
(There are giant spoilers from this point forward. So, if you haven't seen the movie or aren't familiar with the book, please don't blame me for giving away the ending to you).
Marshall’s gaze is important again later in the film, during his marriage scene to Lola. As he and Lola pass by Briony at the back of the church, the couple stare at her in shock. They continue to walk past and, just as they reach the door of the church, Marshall turns back for a double take. Marshall cannot believe his eyes, something the viewer (uncomfortably enough) will come to share with him. By the end of the film, the viewer will be doubting their own vision of the events of the film. (And I will be left wondering if that double take was planned or improvised. Because it's the perfect encapsulation of the film - guessing sight, doubting what you see, looking backwards to understand. It's brilliant.)