By Jeff Reichert
Dir. Joe Wright, U.K., Focus Features
If Atonement registers as a disappointment, unmet expectations can be partially ascribed to outsized anticipation: Joe Wright’s highly successful debut, the Academy Award–nominated Pride and Prejudice, tagged him as a legitimate filmmaker sensitive but never fully enslaved to the rhythms of literary adaptation, while Ian McEwan’s source book was one of the more universally and justly lauded contemporary novels in recent memory. Pride and Prejudice’s overall lightness of tone occasionally overshadowed the idiosyncratic choices of great filmmaking—Wright’s unexpected camera movements, unusual framings, and lengthy, complicated tracking shots meshed so well into the narrative that for the Jane Austen set they probably provided little more than a seductive subliminal pull through the sprightly familiar material. Atonement, which, like Austen’s novel traffics in specific period-bound codes of British morality, caps its investigation with a thoroughly modern formal twist—Wright’s attachment to the project portended a perfectly sensible stretch into a more expansive canvas for an ambitious young talent. The film has received the requisite hosannas from a critical community largely enthralled by anything literary, British, and set in the 1940s, but it remains a largely missed opportunity. And the cloud of heavy expectations can only conceal so much before the paucity of the adaptation reveals itself.
McEwan’s novel is structured in three sections, and the film does a fairly admirable job of condensing the major events of each into a work of reasonable length (much is lost however—more on this shortly). The first part begins on the eve of World War II at the typically classic, lightly crumbling pastoral Tallis family estate. Over the course of a sweltering afternoon and evening, young, imaginative Briony Tallis (played in the film by the nearly albino Saoirse Ronan) misapprehends a series of interactions between her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy), eventually assigning to the lad culpability for a sexual assault on another young relative staying with the Tallis family. While she believes Robbie to be a predator in the making based on what she’s witnessed (and read—a version of a note from Robbie to Cecilia mistakenly placed in an envelope prominently featuring the word “cunt,” and descriptions of what Robbie might like to do with Cecelia’s, makes its way into her hands, and Wright translates this to the screen through typewritten text smacked onto the image), the novel frequently switches perspective to show that Cecilia and Robbie are merely teetering, and then finally collapsing, into a passionate, heretofore unacknowledged youthful cross-class romance. The novel’s second, longer section deals with the impact of Briony’s accusation and how the trio fares during the onset of the war. Robbie’s chosen to enlist rather than finish out his prison term and finds himself injured and fleeing the Germans to Dunkirk; Cecilia’s cut ties with her family and maintains a steady stream of correspondence with her lover while working as a nurse in London; and Briony, now 18, (and played by the vapid, presence-free Romola Garai), wants to write fiction but has also taken up nursing, as she alleges, in Atonement for her later realized sin.
As the envelopment of the lush purple prose of the novel’s early sections slowly gives way to the writer’s thoroughly modern sleight of hand, the book becomes less and less a diary of manners than commentary on the place of fiction in the world and what lies behind the drive to create and tell stories (one can’t help but divine significance from his choice of setting, the perhaps most oft-chronicled era of the 20th century). The novel makes this switch to a more artificial mode a surprisingly devastating turn, but the film never quite turns the corner, so crucial to the success of McEwan’s work, and without nailing this note, nearly invalidates the whole raison d’être for mounting an adaptation of Atonement. (Honestly, without this “twist” the novel would have been merely, good, exceedingly well-written World War II corn.) This failure might be due to durational qualities—while reading Atonement, we live with McEwan’s characters for the several days it might take to complete the book, have a chance to experience the creeping sensation of narrative falsity before the final reveal. Wright only has a little over two hours to work with, so forgive him somewhat on this count, the pitfall of many an unsuccessful literary adaptation. But screenwriter Christopher Hampton (adapted screenplay Oscar-winner for Dangerous Liaisons) still had ample opportunity to tease this crucial strand out—the long middle section of McEwan’s Atonement is disrupted by a certain degree of unease via linguistic play that’s lost in translation to the screen; and the book’s third section, swathed in deep regret, is so drastically shrunken for the film that even the gravitas of Vanessa Redgrave’s turn as the dying Briony Tallis, grown into a successful author, can’t pull the segment into anything resembling a satisfying coda.
Most damaging for the film is its handling of the play between time periods and perspective, perhaps the novel’s greatest strength. The film’s structural weight is so fully tilted towards the first sunbaked section (if you question this, look at how many reviews, including this one, are topped by Keira in that striking green party dress) that it’s hard to get a handle of any of the players as they’re forcibly aged from adolescence through late teens to near death. As soon as the film hits its rhythm in a section, the narrative forces it into the next. Knightley, so effervescent in Pride and Prejudice here seems hamstrung, though whether it’s by her character’s pouty remove, Hampton’s screenplay, or by her milquetoast co-star James McAvoy, of admirable chin and largely fending off his native Scottish accent, it’s hard to say. All the humans here are pawns in an exercise, not characters, and while this is true to the book, this should have been a realization saved for the finale.
Hampton’s emphasis on the book’s first act fails the narrative, but Wright isn’t innocent. For a movie that should be so greatly concerned with looking and misapprehension, it’s surprising that the central misrecognitions of the film’s first part look almost exactly alike from both the perspective of the onlooker and participants. The turnabout of the crucial bit—Cecelia’s nearly-nude dunk into a fountain to retrieve a piece of a shattered vase is only notable in that we’re allowed to hear what Robbie and Ceclia say to each other the second time around. This would have been an obvious place for stylistic intervention, but Atonement is a film that’s weirdly anesthetized—it’s likable when it should be lovable, colder and quicker than it need be, not nearly as daring as it should have been. Even Wright’s most memorable single shot—a lengthy Children of Men-like tour through the assembled mass of soldiers waiting at Dunkirk for safe passage back to Britain—is the result of compromise: the director has admitted that the cost of maintaining all the extras prevented a more detailed examination of the sets, thus necessitating the well-executed, but completely distracting single long take.
Atonement isn’t a total loss by any means, generally sturdy and well-crafted as it is, and will probably look better in a hindsight peppered with the career’s worth of features yet to come for Joe Wright. He’s trying new things here—the introduction of archival footage to imply real historical memory is at work; a quick silhouette of James McAvoy against a black-and-white romance writ large on a movie screen in Dunkirk that suggests meta-commentary on the filmmaker’s own role in misleading the viewer; an intense, surreal interaction between teenaged Briony and a wounded French soldier that looks like it could have been painted by Francis Bacon; the percussive clack of the typewriter built into the score like something Steve Reich might have dreamed up. And as in Pride and Prejudice he’s able to eke out victories from small unshowy cinematic gestures, whether it’s a slight shift in focus from two hands on a table to the teacup in front of them, or a random insert shot of a frog. It’s clear that Wright is trying to inscribe the mark of the cinematic and the written onto the film, but unfortunately he can’t have it both ways, and in the end he either sacks the literary power of the novel in trying to render it filmically, or punted on those little bits of wordplay that made the book special entirely (Briony’s precocious misuse of language as a child, so crucial to the novel, never gets room to breath in the film, and probably couldn’t have been explained easily anyway).
A better adaptation of Atonement might have been less reverent, more freeform (Briony the filmmaker on the eve of some future war?), but then it’s difficult to say—McEwan’s rigorously gradual ceding of control over his material (only to further prioritize himself, the writer) is what makes the book superlative. Still, with the question of authorial license a core tenet of the source, a great cinematic Atonement could have used more of the free play of Raul Ruíz’s Time Regained. While generally enjoyable as a viewing experience marked by flashes of talent and insight (and I’m glad that Wright’s “elected” to work on a somewhat smaller scale, churning out a film more personal than, say, the massively mounted Marc Forster version starring Ben Affleck), Atonement, not quite a sweeping World War II romance, and not quite an incisive commentary on the same, sadly, far from coalesces.