And, indeed, he is. However, I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know who Benedict was when I first saw this film because, if I had, I doubt I would have ever been able to look at him in quite the same way again. (Fortunately, I had somehow forgotten that I had previously seen him in Atonement when I first saw Benedict in Sherlock.) Benedict’s role in Atonement is not a large one but it is pivotal to the film’s plot. He plays Paul Marshall, a man who has made a fortune as a chocolate manufacturer in pre-World War II England. Paul is handsome, charming, and rich. After all, he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s also a rapist who, later in the film, marries one of his victims specifically to make it impossible for her to ever testify against him in court.
Atonement is one of those films where the British upper class meets the lower class and forbidden love and tragedy follow. Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is the oldest of the Tallis sisters. Her family is rich but she’s in love with Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the housekeeper. One night, Robbie attempts to write a love note to Cecilia and, growing frustrated with his inability to come up with right words, he writes an over-the-top, sexually explicit letter as a joke. (And the audience gaps, “Oh my God! They used that word in the 30s!?”) He then goes on to write a more standard love note. However, when he asks Cicilia’s younger sister, 13 year-old Briony (Saorise Ronan) to deliver the note to Cecilia, he accidentally gives her the wrong note. Briony reads it to her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and, already jealous of Robbie and Cecilia’s flirtation, she decides that Robbie must be a “sex maniac.”
Briony, who writes plays in her spare time, later spies on Robbie and Cecilia as they have sex for the first time. Briony, who has a crush on Robbie, grows more and more jealous. Later that night, while looking for Lola’s twin brothers, Briony sees a man running through the woods. When she goes to investigate, Briony discovers that the man has raped Lola. When asked by the police, Briony lies and says that Robbie was the man running in the woods. She also shows everyone the “joke” letter that Robbie wrote, proving, in their eyes, that Robbie is guilty. Robbie is sent to prison. Of the Tallises, only Cecilia believes that Robbie is innocent. Angered over their quickness to accuse Robbie, Cecilia cuts off all contact with her family.
As the years pass, Briony comes to realize that Paul was the rapist and she struggles to deal with her guilt. When World War II breaks out, Robbie is released from prison on the condition that he join the army. Meanwhile, Briony volunteers as a nurse and tries to come up with a way to bring Cecilia and Robbie back together.
I didn’t really appreciate the film the first time that I saw it but, with subsequent viewings, I came to appreciate Atonement as an intelligent and well-acted look at guilt, forgiveness, and redemption. James McAvoy and Keira Knightley both have amazing chemistry and Saoirse Ronan is amazing in her film debut. You can see why Atonement‘s director, Joe Wright, subsequently cast her in Hanna. Compared to the other films nominated for best picture of 2007 — No Country For Old Men, Juno, There Will Be Blood, and Michael Clayton — Atonement is definitely a low-key film. But it definitely more than deserved its nomination.