The Reeler


December 6, 2007


Wright's adaptation hits its tearjerking marks but misses the book's central idea

Ian McEwan's Atonement is an exemplary modern novel, a three-ring circus whose meta-textual meditations on writing organize interior psychology, a war story and a romance. Still, there's no effective way to faithfully adapt a book whose climax revolves, in part, around a rejection letter from Cyril Connolly that takes time to evaluate the positive/negative effects of Virginia Woolf on modern prose; try making that cinematic. The solution, then, is to cut the writing as much as possible and beef up the war and romance. Making good use of the underlying pulpiness from what Gawker has cruelly but kind of accurately dubbed "the serious literary yet still sort of airport-y author," Atonement is a grade-A tearjerker, an effective act of necessary vulgarization.

Operating on the simple but effective principle that a minute without a vigorous tracking shot is a wasted minute, director Joe Wright opens on the kind of spacious Edwardian estate that makes the era an ever-green enticement for Masterpiece Theater. It's England, 1935, and precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is bullying even younger houseguests into acting in her very first play; older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), back from college, wanders around brooding and smoking. The source of Cecilia's bane is the family gardener's son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), though she doesn't know it yet; she shouldn't be in love with the hired help, even if the family has paid for his college education.

Her misunderstanding of her feelings, though, is nothing compared to what happens when Briony sees Cecilia strip down to her underwear and dive into a fountain in front of Robbie. Pre-pubescence and definitely pre-sex, Briony assumes that Robbie is nothing less than a hormone-crazed predator. And intervening in real-life drama is ever so much more interesting than merely writing it: Briony takes steps to bring Robbie's presumed transgressions to light at the exact moment that a real rape is committed, and injustice ensues, separating the budding lovers.

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From country-estate drama to the battlefields of World War II -- with Wright pulling out this year's equivalent of Alfonso Cuaron's showpiece tracking shots from Children Of Men -- Atonement has scope to spare. But epics are hard, unless you're hoping for an award for sheer ambition. It doesn't help that Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, Cold Mountain) has a cameo at the end; between the accents, automatic cachet of weighty adaptations and promise of Epic Romance, the stench of Oscar-bait hangs ominously near. Yet Atonement doesn't deserve to be dismissed just because it's got the same prestige-picture credentials that can make so many end-of-year, middlebrow "art house" films a chore. Far from soppy or banal, Atonement is a vigorous technical exercise that challenges Wright to cram a huge amount of material into just under two hours. He treats every moment like a big one, and there's no down time. With Knightley at her most eccentrically poised and the whole cast generally on point, there's not a lot to object to here: It's a speedy tearjerker, and it works, even if it doesn't linger long after.

If you haven't read the novel, you'll wonder if there's something missing, and there is: the sense of writing as fundamental to a sense of moral culpability and the (im)possibility of redemption. What's missing, in short, is the whole point of the book -- that writing matters, that literature is important. The titular atonement is Briony's, and it's rendered confusingly here; she grows to be a writer, polishing her work during the Blitz, but her urgency never translates to screen.

"It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy," Briony concludes in the book, "it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have." McEwan's Briony grows to epiphany and clarity through her craft; the movie is about everything but the writing.

Comments (1)

Wow Vadim. I actually agree with you for once.

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