Dec 10, 2007


As I read it, I thought Atonement, the novel by Ian McEwan, would make a great movie, for it is a great story; but I thought that it would be daunting, if not impossible, to translate the main gist of the novel to a film format, since it is a novel of memory and guilt and writing, with many fine, gorgeous layers of meaning, and an interesting literary twist at the end. My questions about the film version, directed with much aplomb by Joe Wright, were whether it would capture the sparseness, the elegance and the power of McEwan's tone; whether it would respect the discomfiting darkness in the story, whether the exquisite ironies would pile up and surprise us as they do in the novel. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton has come up with a very faithful adaptation that successfully synthesizes the main themes of the book.
Of course, no amount of visual shorthand can substitute for McEwan's precise powers of observation and his masterful command of language, but the movie acquits itself quite well. It doesn't shy away from the quietly disturbing facts that McEwan brings to bear; for instance, and bless him for it, that innocence is not necessarily synonymous with goodness. Atonement is a love story told through a very complex prism of human emotion, in which the love story almost takes a backseat to the messy rest. McEwan is a very smart writer who likes to disturb people. In this case, a little girl causes terrible damage by telling a lie. She happens to be a budding writer. It is a very literary work, and the movie's challenge is to balance out this darkness with the romantic sprawl of the love story and not to lose sight of the fact that the topic of writing, recollecting or inventing is very important. It's a tall order, but the screenplay resolves it quite neatly.
The music by Dario Marianelli punctuates the writing theme by using a typewriter, very cleverly, as percussion, and this works wonders. Alas, the music gets a little corny later on.
Visually, the movie's style reflects what is recollected in memory, not only because you see the same scene from different points of view, but because in many instances people are shot through mirrors or glass. The lighting of the first part of the movie is clean and delicate and almost gossamer, like the fragile but enduring memory of a summer long ago that you can't shake out of your mind. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is gorgeous.
Keira Knightley does the job and she does it well. She is beautiful and too thin and I wish her character, Celia Tallis, had been explored in more depth. They could have taken time from the wartime sequence which sports an endless tracking shot, (that must have cost half the movie's budget and that I'm sure the director loves), to explore her mind a little more. Endless tracking shots are now achieved with the help of computers. I am far more partial to the tracking shots that were done on camera like Orson Welles' famous one in Touch of Evil. The only part of this movie that taxed my patience was part of the wartime sequence. It is very ambitious and I understand why it looks and feels like it does, but it drags on a little too long. And I can't tell you more about it, because I'd be giving it away.
Romola Garai is very impressive as the adult Briony Tallis. So is the kid that plays her as a child. But the brightest, smartest dreamboat of them all is James McAvoy, who delivers a thoughtful, dashing performance as Robbie the groundskeeper, Celia Tallises' lover. He is fabulous. Atonement feels like a very satisfying, almost old-fashioned, romantic movie but it gives the audience much more than that. It is smart and complex and its many layers of meaning will keep your brain happily engaged for hours.

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