The posting on this blog has been light lately because I've had some other writing projects to complete, including movie reviews for the local paper and a conference presentation I'm delivering in Louisville in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I just got word this afternoon that the local paper is completely cutting its freelance budget, which means, for the foreseeable future, I won't be writing movie reviews--or the annual Oscar prediction piece I do with the paper's regular movie reviewer.
However, I sent the paper three reviews this week, on No Country for Old Men, Atonement, and Into the Wild. The No Country review ran today, but the paper won't be running the other reviews. Since I don't want to put the effort to waste, I'm going to make my local readers' loss your gain, and post the Atonement review here.
Before I get to the review, I just want to say, though I say something similar in the review, that Ian McEwan's novel upon which this film is based is my favorite novel of the 21st century, and one I've returned to often over the past few years. It really holds up to multiple readings. I'd also recommend pretty much every one of McEwan's novels, especially The Child in Time and his recent short novel, On Chesil Beach.
“Atonement”: A Rare Successful Literary Adaptation
Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement” is my favorite novel of the last ten years, and one to which I have frequently returned. So, it was with considerable trepidation that I anticipated director Joe Wright and writer Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the novel. Wright, I thought, had done some violence to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in his last film, adding too many modern sensibilities to a story that should stand up well on its own. However, the announcement that Keira Knightly and James McAvoy would play the two central characters filled me with some hope, as both seemed perfectly suited to this period story that spans the mid-1930s to the Second World War.
As an adaptation, “Atonement” is about as successful as a fan of the novel could hope for. While some elements of the novel are necessarily missing from the film in order to compress the narrative into a two-hour running time, and the novel’s surprising conclusion is far less satisfying in the film, the essence of the novel remains intact due to inventive directorial choices by Wright, an intelligent screenplay, and fine performances by the main actors.
The film opens in 1935 at the ancestral estate of the Tallis family. Young Briony Tallis (Oscar-nominee Saoirse Ronan) is on the cusp of adolescence, and she is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her visiting cousins so that they can begin work on her latest creation, a play called “The Trials of Arabella.” When we first see Briony, she is typing away at a typewriter, toy animals arranged on the floor of her room as a silent and respectful audience for her creative work. This image perfectly and economically condenses Briony’s character: she is an aspiring writer who selfishly demands the attention of an audience that conforms to her needs.
In a pause from her writing, Briony looks out the window to see a startling tableau: her sister, Cecilia (Knightly) stripping to her underclothes in front of a fountain, while the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (McAvoy) stretches out what appears to be a commanding hand. This scene, and Briony’s interpretation of it, becomes the catalyst for an escalating series of events that Briony fits into a larger, immature, romantic narrative that has devastating consequences for Robbie and Cecilia.
The novel features shifting perspectives that move through various characters’ points of view as well as back and forth in time, and the film succeeds at subtly duplicating some of these shifts without relying on clunky voiceover narration or other obvious tricks to indicate time shifts. At one point, Briony intercepts a letter from Robbie to Cecilia, and the letter contains a word that has such a strong, emotional impact on the young girl that it appears typed out on the screen in giant letters. The loud impact of the typewriter key on the page duplicates the impact of the word on the impressionable and immature girl’s mind. Briony is on the cusp of adolescence, still immersed in childish games and stories, yet exposed to information from the adult world that she has difficulty processing. In order to do so, she tries to fit it all into a romanticized, fantastic narrative that she has created, using the members of her household as the characters. Later, when Briony witnesses an apparent crime, her narrative reaches the point of its fulfillment, and the story she has created colors her testimony and has real-life consequences.
The film also follows the overall structure of the novel, moving from life at the Tallis estate to Robbie’s experience as a soldier in World War II attempting to escape France after the Allies’ defeat at Dunkirk. Though this segment abbreviates the novel too much, it does feature an impressive, bravura, long tracking shot of the British soldiers’ chaotic evacuation of Dunkirk.
The film’s third segment reveals the experiences of Briony (now played by Romola Garai—a change in performer that seemed to confuse those in the audience surrounding me, even though the segment opens by identifying her as "Briony Tallis") as an eighteen-year-old nurse training at a London hospital during the war. As Briony treats soldiers suffering from horrible wounds, she also tries to come to terms with the consequences of her earlier testimony and continues her development as a writer.
McAvoy and Knightly are perfectly suited for this film—both look great in the period costumes, and their chemistry conveys the passion of Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship. It’s unfortunate that they were both overlooked by the Academy Awards, because both performances are certainly deserving of recognition. The Academy did get it right, however, in recognizing young Saoirse Ronan in the Best Supporting Actress category. Her performance as the young Briony exhibits a feigned maturity that masks her real naïveté. While Briony makes tragic decisions, she is not truly malicious, and it’s to Ronan’s credit that she maintains this delicate balance in her performance without making the character unsympathetic.
While the film’s conclusion captures the spirit of the novel’s, I do wish the filmmakers had attempted to duplicate the novel’s stunning final chapter with more accuracy. That being said, “Atonement” is one of the most successful literary adaptations I can remember, and it should stand on its own for viewers unfamiliar with the novel (though I would hope that the film’s success would drive readers to the book and to McEwan’s other excellent novels).