It will always and forever be unfair to judge a film based on a novel by its literary predecessor. The two are inherently different media, and translating internal monologue and emotional nuance into a story told with visuals makes it nigh impossible to remain truthful to the novel’s every plot turn while creating something kinetic and eye-catching. You might as well try to turn a pop song into a sitcom, it’s that big a change. That’s one of the things that makes director Joe Wright’s Atonement, adapted by Christopher Hampton (The Quiet American) from Ian McEwan’s book, such a success: Wright has trimmed the letter but kept the spirit, creating one of the more structurally and emotionally faithful adaptations of all time. But I should be very careful here: It’s not successful because it is a replica of the book, but because it takes the book’s story and (most of its) ideas and becomes as canon as canon can be in regards to literary adaptations. If you ask if the film is as deeply engrossing as the book, I can only respond: Can a film ever be? Atonement the movie is not Atonement the book, and must necessarily be blunter in the sake of concise storytelling and the demands of turning what McEwan painted in the hearts and minds of each individual reader into a mural meant to be viewed by all at once. I was blown away by the book, but nevertheless, I found the film to be a stirring, epic story of romance and fate set against the backdrop of the first half of World War II. It’s a big, bold film, thoroughly captivating from the first lavish minute to the haunting final frames. Wright has taken McEwan’s emotionally dense novel and suffused it with a sense of sweep all too rarely seen in modern film to create something grand, and noble, and heartbreaking. It’s a different beast than the book altogether, good all on its own, but for its own distinctive ways.
I won’t even attempt to touch on all the characters or their relationships, but here we go. Beginning in England in 1935, the first act unfolds over the course of an afternoon and evening at a country estate owned by the Tallis family: Matriarch Emily (Harriet Walter), firstborn Leon (Patrick Kennedy), elder daughter Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and younger daughter Briony (Saoirse Ronan). There’s also Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the handyman who lives in the guesthouse with his mother, one of the house staff, and Leon’s friend, Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch). Hampton’s script deftly introduces the bundle of main characters and additional supporting players in a matter of minutes, and Wright bounces from scene to scene in an effort to both keep the pace from flagging and to induce a sense of uneasiness in the proceedings; you’re never quite able to plant your feet before Wright is shifting the action to another location or skipping back in time a few minutes to follow the same event from a different character’s perspective. The key to the whole film is the way that errors of perspective and youth can drive people to do terrible things, and Wright captures the multitude of ideas and half-formed impressions so easily and quickly it’s as if he’s performing a miracle.
The first instance is when young Briony looks out her bedroom window to the fountain in the large front yard and sees Robbie and Cecilia in what appears to be an argument. Robbie shouts and holds his arm out, and Cecilia looks furiously back at him before doing something that puzzles and terrifies Briony because she has no idea what it could mean: Cecilia strips down to her slip and dives into the fountain, reappearing moments later, all but naked in her wet clothes. Briony, like many children, spends most of her day adrift in a weird world of her own creation, and she funnels her observations into stories and plays banged out on her old typewriter, but she’s too young to begin to understand what’s happening at the fountain, and so overloads a bit. Briony turns away in shock and confusion as Cecilia dresses, and Wright doesn’t pause before cutting away to Cecilia running through a field, flowers in hand and completely dry. There are several such time-shifting cuts in the film, particularly in the first half, and the first one has to necessarily jar the continuity enough to establish both that the story has now jumped back in time a few minutes and also changed focus to a new character, in this case Cecilia. Wright accomplishes all this in an instant. It’s a subtle but fantastic example of truly cinematic storytelling, using a few crucial visuals and the subtextual language of editing to condense what would be a lot of ungainly exposition. The replayed version of the scene shows Cecilia and Robbie walking to the fountain so she can fill a vase with water for flowers, and Robbie’s attempts to help her wind up shattering the vase, at which point Cecilia dives in to retrieve the missing piece. Knightley and McAvoy are never less than amazing together, generating a pure chemistry that immediately conveys a history of suppressed longing and misunderstandings. Robbie’s vain attempts to apologize go nowhere, and it’s apparent from the way he bites his tongue that he’s got so much more to say.
There are at least two more similar instances of false impressions revolving around Briony’s observation of her family and a few guests visiting with them; suffice it to say that the evening winds up being an emotionally devastating one full of accusations and unintended lies. It would be irresponsible to say more. Afterward, Wright again resets the action by jumping forward a few years to the fields of war-torn France. Robbie is now a soldier making his way with a pair of other men to the shore in the massive Dunkirk evacuation of summer 1940, and his nights are filled with dreams of the moments he and Cecilia had together that afternoon long ago and again before he shipped out. Robbie’s slog through the countryside is a brutal one, a slow death of his last shred of boyhood as he keeps his two comrades moving past wrecked homes and a stretch of dead children, arranged in a field like sticks. The film cuts between his attempt to get to the beach and then back home with his memories of seeing Cecilia again the day he shipped out after a long absence. Robbie and Cecilia are awkward with each other, so in love and desperate to run away to someplace happier that they can only speak at first in formal greetings and jumbled half-sentences. But when Cecilia gently places her hand on Robbie’s, he begins to tremble; he can’t even keep stirring his tea. There’s a palpable, almost electric sadness in the air when they touch, and you can sense the franticness with which they’re holding together the fragile life they’re trying to build for themselves. “I love you. I’ll wait for you. Come back to me,” is what Cecilia has told him before, and how she signs her letters to him on the front. In nothing more than a few scenes together, McAvoy and Knightley come up with something expansive and damning, the kind of melodramatic romance that pulls you out of your seat and into the film with them. It’s impossible not to ache for them, or to worry about their futures.
Their romance is given an appropriately large-scale framework, too. I can’t remember the last time I was this flat-out stunned by the quality of the production and costume design, but Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran have respectively produced some jaw-dropping sets and outfits that capture the smallest details of Wright’s fully realized world. They both teamed with Wright on Pride and Prejudice, and whatever working language they seem to share has done wonders when it comes to making the universe of Atonement a thoroughly believable one. Similarly, Dario Marianelli’s lush, melodramatic score pulses right along, weaving the beat of a typewriter with haunting strings to give the score a mechanic but also operatic feel. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is remarkable under the guidance of Wright; every shot is artfully composed but rarely feels artificial, and the one moment of intentionally self-aware camerawork doesn’t detract from the film but actually adds to it. The scene is one on the French beach where Robbie discovers a few hundred thousand of his fellow soldiers, waiting to be picked up and shipped out but unable to do anything until the boats arrive. As Robbie wanders the beach, taking in the destruction and wreckage and general chaos of all these men about to erupt from boredom and terror, the camera gently sweeps in and out of the crowd, picking up details and faces here and there, showcasing the whole thing in an unbroken tracking shot that lasts a solid five minutes, all set to Marianelli’s aching score. This is one of the many sequences that McAvoy carries with nothing more than the look in his eyes and the hang of his shoulders. He and Knightley share some wonderful moments, but it’s McAvoy as the devoted Robbie who provides the main story with its goal and drive. The scene on the beach somehow becomes Wright’s strongest metaphor for Robbie in particular and for the natures of love in general: The soldiers have been beaten back but are resolved to try again, just as Robbie has been defeated at first but still refuses to rest until he’s home again. In a film about the tricks of perspective, this one moment is the most focused, the most unequivocal in its desire and consequence. This isn’t where the story leaves Robbie and Cecila, but it’s the way they’ll always be remembered.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Truth and Reconciliation
Film | December 25, 2007 | Comments ()