This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Note: My review of Ian McEwan's original novel can be read here.
A few weeks back, in my review (click here) of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, I highlighted the observation that artists seem to fall in two categories: dramatists and illustrators. Dramatists put their skills entirely at the service of the material. Illustrators, on the other hand, use the material as a stage to flaunt their technical ability. Joe Wright, the director of Atonement, seems to fall in between the two camps. Like the novel, the film is divided into four sections: a fateful day at an English estate in 1935; the horrific retreat of the British military at Dunkirk in 1940; an episode in London before, during, and after the events at Dunkirk; and an epilogue set in the present day. Wright and his scenarist, Christopher Hampton, do a fine job of reimagining the latter two sections for the screen. They even manage the trick of fixing the novel's awful ending while remaining true to it. But their treatment of the first two episodes are the product of an illustrator mentality: lavishly presented, technically astonishing at points, but dramatically inert.
To be fair, I don't think any filmmaker could have successfully adapted the 1935 section, which takes up the first half of the novel, and stayed true to McEwan. It tells of the young lovers Cecilia and Robbie (Keira Knightley and James McAvoy), and how their romance was horribly thwarted by the resentful, jealous actions of Cecilia's thirteen-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan). McEwan's rendering of this episode is distinctly modernist. The narrative is presented through the shifting points of view of the three main characters, and the different perspectives are carefully developed and orchestrated to build the events to a climax. But a film has almost no choice but to present the narrative in objective terms, and neither it nor the characters are particularly interesting when seen from the outside. Wright and Hampton are faithful to a fault, so the plotting and the characters seem thin. James McAvoy has given audiences fine, layered characterizations in such films as Becoming Jane and The Last King of Scotland, but the film's Robbie offers him nothing to work with. He's a handsome, amiable blank. Keira Knightley makes a stronger impression, but once one observes that Cecilia is headstrong and beautiful (at least from the neck up), that's it. These lovers are a dull pair, and the opening section often leaves one stuck admiring the production design and the scenery.
The only dramatic interest in the first part comes from Saoirse Ronan's performance as Briony. Straight-backed, her face as tight as a drum, Ronan marches through the family manor with such determination--and so little wasted movement--that when she comes to a closed door, one doesn't know if she's going to open it or knock it down. Ronan successfully renders the single-minded, hyper-controlled manner of this lonely, alienated thirteen-year-old, and it gives her the foundation for an extremely strong characterization. One can always feel what her Briony is thinking, because it always comes across as a crack in her prim façade. This is true whether it's Briony's annoyance with another girl's efforts to one-up her, or her curiosity and shock when she walks in on Cecilia and Robbie having sex. The tenacity of her machinations against Robbie, which end with him unjustly being sent to prison, is completely convincing, and it creates the first half's only suspense. One watches with dread wondering if she'll actually succeed.
The Dunkirk section, which features Robbie five years down the road as a British soldier, follows his efforts to join the troop evacuation. It is the weakest part of the film. It's dramatically shapeless, and the events from the novel that could give it some urgency have been largely truncated. Wright has received a great deal of acclaim for an extended Steadicam tracking shot that travels among the groups of soldiers at the Dunkirk beach, but the reason it's so conspicuous is that there's nothing else of interest going on. Brian De Palma, who's the master of this kind of setpiece, always puts the audience inside the characters' heads. In the magnificent Grand Central Station scene in his Carlito's Way, one is completely caught up in Carlito's predicament, and the sudden-death approach to staging and shooting only adds to the urgency. Wright's setpiece is a marvel of logistical planning and execution, and it may be the most elaborate shot of this sort ever attempted, but it's a textbook example of a movie director thinking like an illustrator. Wright gets so caught up in the camera choreography that he forgets he's dramatizing a story.
He finally gains his footing in the London section. It's loaded with incident, and told through the eyes of a single character, so Wright and Hampton aren't trapped by their inability to approximate modernist prose effects. It also has a strong narrative line: the 18-year-old Briony (played by Romola Garai), learns humility and caring through her experiences as a London nurse. This leads her to seek reconciliation with Cecilia and Robbie, who've since been reunited, and to atone for what she's done. The film takes one fully inside Briony's guilt over her actions. The scenes of the hospital overwhelmed by the Dunkirk wounded, as well as the confrontation with Cecilia and Robbie, have all the intensity one could ask for.
Wright and Hampton's assurance extends to the epilogue, and they tweak McEwan's wretched closing revelation just enough to make it work. In the novel, McEwan reveals that the preceding narratives are the elderly Briony's fictional reimaginings of the events in 1935 and 1940. The "real" Cecilia and Robbie never had the happy ending of sorts that's shown. McEwan is obnoxiously offhand about this, and the revelation of Cecilia and Robbie's actual fate is confined to a single sentence. Wright, Hampton, and the film's producers must have realized that if they'd stayed true to this, they were risking riots in the theaters. They give us the ending McEwan should have. Cecilia and Robbie are treated with dignity, and their plights are recreated for the audience in flashback. The film also ends on a sweet, romantic note that McEwan may have felt himself too sophisticated to provide: we see Cecilia and Robbie frolicking on the Sussex beach, happy in the elderly Briony's fantasy of what might and should have been.
The modifications made to the ending point to what might and should have been for the movie as well. Wright and Hampton should have realized that attempting to recreate the novel's opening sections and remaining true to McEwan's treatment was folly; they needed to reimagine it in their own terms. Once McEwan's masterful prose rendering is removed, there isn't enough left to merit interest. When one sees that flashy Dunkirk setpiece, one wonders if Wright was so overtaken by creative boredom that he kept himself occupied by creating logistical challenges for himself. His imagination comes to life in a more laudable way when he takes it upon himself to solve the dramatic problems McEwan created with the novel's ending. One wishes he'd approached the entire film in the same manner. As it is, Atonement is an erratic piece of work, though a good complement to the book it's taken from. Its failures only make the novel's successes shine brighter, and it succeeds most where the novel lets one down.