Film critics are a notoriously grumpy lot, maybe because, unlike the general public, they sometimes have to see films they wouldn’t choose to. Thus, jaded and difficult to please, a number of them have called Atonement a Merchant-Ivory type production—albeit with more soul—made with an eye on Academy awards. Where some have praised it, others have found it as flawed as all screen adaptations of great books.
This is not a quarrel that can find any solution soon. Indeed, how can one render on screen all the all the ramifications of a complex story and all the nuances conveyed by words, especially those written by a master craftsman? Mixed reviews aside, Joe Wright has rendered as faithfully as possible Ian McEwan’s magnificent novel of 2001.
An interesting aside here–in an interview on public radio, Wright describes how he invited McEwan to see the day’s rushes, with trepidation as one can imagine. When the lights came back on, he was gratified by the author’s approval. Then he asked McEwan whether the images were those he had visualized when writing the book. “I don’t visualize images when I write,” was the response, “I visualize words.”
Back to Atonement. Despite the lush and sweeping aspects of the film—the English house and its surroundings, of wild and dreamy beauty, the evacuation of Dunkirk during WWII, to which Wright has chosen to add a touch of felliniesque whimsy, Dario Marinelli’s opulent score accompanied by the clatter of a typewriter, and the first-rate cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (of The Hours, Charlotte’s Web, and World Trade Center), Atonement is much more than a period piece. Joe Wright, an almost unknown who had previously directed only the one film, Pride and Prejudice, has remained faithful to the story.
That story, as told by Ian McEwan who must be the most gifted and readable author alive, is not one you forget easily. It centers on a young girl, Briony Tallis, who, in all the confusion of adolescence, brimming with dreams of her future as a writer, her unconscious crush on Robbie, the McAvoy character, and her wild imagination, sees or thinks she sees an incident which she misinterprets and which becomes the basis for the incredible lie that she then comes up with.
That lie will destroy several lives and haunt her to an extent that neither giving up promising studies at Cambridge to become a war-time nurse, nor the way she rewrites history in her final novel as an aging and ill writer can ever atone. If there is a weak aspect to the film, it’s in the acting. Except for Briony at age 13 (Saoirse Ronan) and a brief appearance by Vanessa Redgrave, stupendous as always, as the now old Briony, the rest of the cast gives perfunctory performances.
Keira Knightley’s role consist of looking stunning throughout, James McAvoy, the up-and-coming heartthrob is slightly more alive than in The Last King of Scotland, and all the others make no impression whatsoever. What more than makes up for the lackluster cast is the overall tone, the luminous first half of the film before it sinks in the darkness, the chaos, and the disruption of war, and our sense of grief, almost personal, at the unforeseen consequences of young Briony’s thoughtlessness.