dir: Joe Wright
[img_assist|nid=26|title=Feed me, I'm hungrier than Christian Bale|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
Atonement is an exquisite rendering of an exquisite book, brought to life in a way that is surprising in the sense that good literary adaptations for the silver screen are rare.
Whilst I do find Keira Knightley’s anorexic and perpetually hungry features disturbing, she makes a decent Cecilia, in fact everyone seems perfect in terms of casting and what they bring to their roles. So full praise to the casting director.
Kudos to you, sir or madam, kudos.
What’s doubly surprising is that the book could be transformed so readily into so decent a film, sacrificing little that made the book so compelling. The three-part structure is intact, the key moments and situations as seen from crucial view points are well presented, and there’s even room for some directorial virtuosity in the form of an incredible long take on the beaches of Dunkirk.
Of course, a film that truly captured everything in the Ian McEwen novel would have been a hundred hours long, because so much of it is the internal thoughts and monologues of the involved characters. Crucial moments are exploded outwards like a design engineer’s drawings of a complicated engine, with each intricate part observed and illuminated further complicating everything instead of explaining it. It felt like nearly a hundred pages were devoted to the brief moments occurring at the fountain between two characters alone.
So it is pared down, but not in such a way that loses any of what makes the novel so strong.
I decided the novel had to be read just after hearing that Atonement had been made into a film, and premiered to rapturous critical ecstasy at one of the film festivals last year. Knowing that McEwen’s works can be difficult, complex but rewarding, I wanted to be in a better position to judge the film’s relative merits, never having bothered to read the novel previous.
The novel possesses an amazing story, with pretty much no plot, and a devastating payoff that exists more as a condemnation of writers and their god-like arrogance, and with a powerful emphasis on the fact that there are some actions for which no amount of atonement or penitence can make up for.
The film’s payoff is the same, since the same structure is used, but some of its power is muted by the choice of having Briony’s elder self played by Lynn Redgrave speak directly to the camera to mimic the manner in which the last part of the novel has Briony speaking in the first person, and all too briefly. The path there is the same, but, I have to say, expecting as I was the same feeling derived from the book, it was one of only a few disappointments to be found herein.
Otherwise, yes, it’s prestige Oscar-bait, but it’s really well done, and it has a heart and keen intelligence under the period piece and war-time trappings that play so well to the over 60s audience members it’s obviously pitched at.
Of the book’s three parts, the greater amount of pages and words is devoted to the fateful day and night at the Tallis manor during a horribly hot summer, just prior to the start of World War II.
Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is our entry point into the film, as we watch her putting the finishing touches to a play she wants to perform that night. Though only 13, she’s a keen observer of what goes on around her, constantly poking her nose into other people’s business, and is a fairly judgemental creature to boot. Even though she has the curiosity to pursue certain mysteries and to interpose herself into very adult situations, she’s only 13, and thus really has no idea what is going on.
This combination, and the fact that she accidentally observes three or four crucial moments that she is not capable of understanding, leads to a tragic result impacting on many lives.
Her sister Cecilia (Knightly) is back from Cambridge, and is something of a flibbertigibbet. She spends most of the early part of the film modelling what is now called vintage clothing and looking like an exquisite clothes horse. Oh and she smokes a lot despite not really liking smoking that much.
Everyone at the palatial country manor seems to be excited about the imminent arrival of firstborn son Leon (Patrick Kennedy) and his chocolate magnate friend Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), as everything is set for a special dinner. On top of that, some cousins whose parents are divorcing are forced to stay at the manner, bringing even more complications to the mix. Lola (Juno Temple) and the twin boys seem to be a distraction at first, but poor Lola at least has a crucial role to play in the proceedings.
Not least, but certain last there’s Robbie (James McAvoy). The son of one of the servants, because of his intelligence and because of the largesse of Papa Tallis, who we never get to see, he is educated and financially supported to within an inch of his life. That upstairs/downstairs separation obviously still exists between how the young Tallis’s regard him, but there has also obviously been something simmering between himself and Cecilia all these years.
It comes to the fore during a strange, sexually charged scene before a fountain, which initially played out from the distant point of view of stickybeak Briony, observing from the house. She is shocked by what she sees, but we don’t know why.
The scene then plays out again from the point of view of Robbie and Cecilia, to further our understanding but not Briony’s. It’s clear there’s some kind of tension betwixt the two characters, which causes them to both say and do somewhat foolish things.
Robbie feels the need to apologise, and spends part of the afternoon drafting apology after apology, none of which captures what he really wants to say. In a moment of horny wish-fulfilment fantasy, he drafts a letter which says the kind of stuff few men then or now would usually be comfortable saying to any woman, regardless of the kinds of stuff they got up to. He laughs to himself, puts it aside, and rights something more formal that reads like a formal contract between a vicar and a bakery asking for mince pies for a fete. When all he can really think about is her vagina, apparently.
Of course, which one do you think he actually puts in the envelope, and gives to Briony to deliver to Cecilia?
Such hilarious sitcom-like elements shouldn’t let you fall into a false sense of security and comfort about where the story is going. Sexy results do ensue, but so does a horrific crime. Briony, who is simultaneously completely self-absorbed and manic about involving herself in whatever is going on, bear witness to a rape, and is the police and prosecution’s star performer. And what she does, for reasons that seem perfectly reasonable to her at the time, is why the film and book are called Atonement.
The film shifts several years into the future as the war starts up with Hitler, and Robbie, for reasons he has Briony to thank for, is desperately trying to escape along with the rest of the British contingent from France after the Germans take over. He has taken a piece of shrapnel to the chest, but has the help of two corporals, Nettle and Mace, and the desperate hope and dream that he can one day get back to Cecilia, who has stood by him despite her family. The Dunkirk retreat, or strategic withdrawal as the newsreels couch it, is a visually remarkable part of the film.
Cecilia has become a nurse and cut herself off from the Tallises, but, as part of her penance, Briony (now played by Romola Garai), has also become a nurse under hideously difficult conditions. She yearns to make things right with Robbie and Cecilia, but they’re not buying any of it.
All the while, the soundtrack, which has the standard kind of musical score, also has the tip-tap-tapping of typewriter keys. It’s a sound used as early on as the very beginning, when Briony is writing her play, but it persists throughout, for a reason that doesn't become apparent until the end. As a trainee nurse, she steals away late at night to work on her novel Two Figures by the Fountain. Regardless of what childish things she put away upon reaching her majority, she still grasps onto the creative impulse that has served her so well thus far.
In the last part of the film, Briony is quite old, and it seems to be contemporary to our time, and she confesses to a tv interviewer that she is dying. She is being interviewed about what she refers to as her last book, Atonement, and she explains something crucial about what we’ve been watching for the last two hours, something that seems like a twist but is far more profound than that, something which I think the film simplifies, and makes gentler than it deserved to be.
Atonement, being as it is a religious concept, is about making up for one’s sins. Briony’s need transcends actually being able to make amends in any real sense. Atonement is her act of atonement, the final opportunity she possesses to make up for what cannot be made up for, and as an empty, cowardly, futile gesture which is no less moving for it. There are things you can’t atone for, and that you shouldn’t be able to atone for, no matter what you do in your life. The movie, in about only one of two missteps that it makes, in my opinion, minimises this third part of the story too much. The crucial quote from the book, about authors as gods, especially considering the lack of God, is too important to not have found a way to be worked in. Christopher Hampton, who adapted the screenplay from the book, generally does a good job, but even if the film was running too long, we needed more time with aged Briony.
The three Brionys are all fantastic, which is crucial to the credibility of the story, and it’s very convenient for us that despite the passage of seventy years, she doesn’t change her hairstyle once, which helps us slower members of the audience. They’re far more important than Keira Knightly, who really just has to be in the right spot at the right time and to look pretty and emaciated in her Size 2 clothing. McAvoy is excellent as Robbie, which is another crucial aspect, but I wish they’d written the companion characters of Nettle and Mace more effectively, because they were a delight in the book, and little more than filler in the film. McAvoy captures the important aspects of the ambivalence within Robbie’s character and gets it across with facial expressions and quirks of the eyes as well as dialogue. His big scene with Briony has him righteously pissed off, but he doesn’t overplay it, which is to his credit.
I guess I was sold before I even walked into the cinema, but the truth is, books I’ve loved have angered me greatly in film form (damn you, Nicolas Cage for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, damn you to hell). And a good adaptation is hard to find but easy to appreciate.
Horribly simple story. Horribly complex repercussions. Horribly good adaptation, and horribly good film.
8 times I’m amazed that the only thing people talked about regarding this film was Keira “feed me” Knightly out of 10.
“We fight in France and the French fucking hate us. Make me Home Secretary and I'll sort this out in a fucking minute. We got India and Africa, right? Jerry can have France and Belgium and whatever else they want. Who's fucking ever been to Poland? It's all about room, Empire. They want more empire, give 'em this shithole, we keep ours and it's Bob's your uncle and Fanny's your fucking aunt! Think about it.” – Atonement.