Movie Review: Atonement
Release Date: December 7, 2007
Distributor: Focus Features
· Joe Wright
· Keira Knightley
· James McAvoy
· Saoirse Ronan
· Romola Garai
· Vanessa Redgrave
by Ted Porter
Published: December 9, 2007
The degree to which you enjoy this adaptation of the 2001 Ian McEwan book may derive from a combination of two factors. One, you must either have not read McEwan's subtle yet powerful novel beforehand or, if you have, be accepting of the fact that the movie version of a novel is almost inevitably an inferior experience. Two, you should be at least somewhat of a romantic, not to mention an unrepentant Anglophile (and I think it's safe to say that the two qualities often go together), to appreciate this very romantic, very British film. Those who take their romance with a dash of cynicism may fare even better.
That said, as someone who fits into all of the above categories I can say I was engrossed and entertained for the two hours of "Atonement" and yet am still not entirely decided on how I feel about the film. While it follows fairly closely the events, characters and themes of the book, it can’t convey quite the same level of depth and characterization, the capacity for explanation mixed with ambiguity, that the novel provides. This is a common complaint of literary adaptations, of course, but when the source you're dealing with is a novel as gorgeously written as this one, from one of the master prose stylists of the last 30 years, that discrepancy is felt all the more keenly.
It's perhaps unfair to fault director Joe Wright ("Pride and Prejudice") and screenwriter Christopher Hampton ("Dangerous Liaisons") for the limitations inherent in bringing an acclaimed novel to the screen. They do, after all, manage to create enthralling cinematic equivalents of several memorable images and set pieces from McEwan's visually evocative prose. The colors of wildflowers and swaying high grasses in the summer meadows of an English country estate; porcelain fragments sinking lazily to the bottom of a fountain; the horrors seen and endured by British soldiers in World War II as they retreated from northern France and waited to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk.
As the film opens, it's 1935, and Briony Tallis, a precocious 13-year-old girl, is putting the finishing touches on her first play. The sound of the typewriter clacking away, forceful and insistent, follows us through the movie, becoming part of the effective and ingenious musical score as its mechanical keys mingle with the keys of a piano. It also reminds us again and again that this is, to a large extent, a story about telling stories, and how the impulse to tell them can be both redemptive and tragic when it intersects with real life.
Briony, played with just the right combination of intelligence and innocence by Saoirse Ronan, is a member of a wealthy English family living on a sprawling country estate. It's the hottest day of the summer, and she's enlisted her three visiting cousins to perform her play that evening. Briony's beautiful older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), having finished her three years at Cambridge, restlessly wanders the grounds. Occasionally crossing her path is Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of one of her family's servants, who's also just come down from Cambridge, thanks to the generosity of Cecilia's father. Cecilia and Robbie are just coming to realize that they're in love with each other.
At first it seems we're in for a typical tale of two lovers struggling to come together across class boundaries. But compounding the difficulty of their tenuous courtship is Briony, who as a budding writer is a bit too observant and too imaginative for her own good. After a series of minor incidents and misunderstandings, she walks in on a scene she's too young, or just too naive, to understand, and she misinterprets it wildly. By the end of that night, after a crime is committed on the estate, Robbie has been hauled off to jail due to Briony's overeager testimony.
This first hour, so ripe with ravishing imagery and intrigue, is utterly compelling and suspenseful, so it's somewhat of a letdown when we jump, rather abruptly, to the early days of World War II (confusingly, the film puts us only four years ahead, to 1939, when it's actually five, to 1940). Here the story bogs down a bit and loses some of the focus of the first part of the film. What was a fascinating, tense triangle between Briony, Robbie and Cecilia, filled with jealousy, passion, guilt and lies, is splintered by the epic subject of war; one imagines that a story just as interesting and dramatic could have emerged had we remained on the Tallis estate.
Still, there are powerful images and moments showing how the war ripped open the whole of Britain and Europe, interrupting the lives of everyday people amid the wider destruction. Robbie, having taken the government up on its offer to get out of prison by going into the Army, is in northern France, trying with a couple of fellow soldiers to reach Dunkirk. Cecilia and Briony (now played as an 18-year-old by Romola Garai) both work as nurses in London, but the two of them are estranged. The film alternates back and forth between Robbie waiting to be evacuated and Briony's harrowing training as she nurses the returning wounded.
Interspersed with all of this is the romance -- mostly conducted through letters -- that Cecilia and Robbie have resumed after a chance meeting in London. Knightley and McAvoy are believable enough in their passionate longing for each other -- they both look the part effortlessly -- but there's a sense here of the old lovers-separated-by-war cliché seen in countless films before. It's mainly the constant allusion back to that fateful day and night in 1935, and the guilt Briony feels for the youthful mistake she made that so affected Robbie and her sister, that saves the film from falling irretrievably into a kind of beautiful banality.
It's only at the very end, when we see an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), now a successful writer, reflecting on the repercussions of what she did decades before -- and what happened to Robbie and Cecilia -- that the film takes on a greater weight and poignancy. The theme of guilt and atonement finally comes full circle, in a surprising way that may create a lump or two in the throats of even those cynical romantics in the audience. While it's a fairly satisfying film, one hopes that it will prompt at least some viewers to discover the book's fuller, more nuanced and ultimately more rewarding treatment of the story.