JOINED BY LOVE. SEPARATED BY FEAR. REDEEMED BY HOPE.
Have you ever done something that you’re not particularly proud of? Something you’re downright ashamed of? Something that you wish more than anything you were able to make up for, but couldn’t? Such is the basis for Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, wherein a young girl’s mistake crushes the happiness of the two people closest to her, and brings her a lifetime of shame and repentance. She spends the remainder of her life trying to make up for what she did, knowing full well that she probably won’t ever do so. The novel was a great success, winning several awards, and even making it onto more than one list of Greatest Books Ever. Six years after its publication, the inevitable big screen adaptation landed.
13-year-old aspiring writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) sees an encounter between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) at the fountain in front of her home, and misinterprets what she sees. From this incident, and another where Briony reads a letter from Robbie to Cecilia, Briony concludes that Robbie is a deviant. When her cousin is raped, Briony lies to the police, telling them it was Robbie. Over the years, Briony comes to realise the gravity of her lie, effectively destroying the lives of those most directly connected.
I actually read the original novel not too long ago, a few years after the film was released. Honestly, I didn’t care for it. It’s become another item to add to the pile of things that I can appreciate intellectually, but to which I felt little emotional connection. I can understand and recognise the value of the writing, the characters and the themes it discusses. However, I simply couldn’t get past the fact that I never felt the tremendous emotive qualities and, though I did get to the end of the book, it was honestly like drawing blood trying to get there. That said, I don’t really think it’s a bad book, just one of the many things I didn’t take to. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I had read the book first, but we’ll never know now.
One of the most consistent themes of the book is the manner in which life can affect fiction, and fiction can affect life. The character of Briony is intrinsically connected to this theme. From a young age, Briony has wanted to be a writer, regularly making up stories with elaborate plots and characters, with a final positive moral lesson at the end. Being such a highly imaginative but still very immature girl, she has a tendency to conjure up a world of drama in real life, seeing conflict and obstacles where there are none. It’s due to her misinterpretations of half-seen events that lead her to fill in the blanks with the same over-dramatic arcs and motivations that populate her fictional stories. Effectively, through her desire to instil a clean and logical (by her own standards) narrative on things, she ends up twisting her reality into something built on a cruel fabrication. Although she forces herself to believe it as a youngster, growing older makes her realise the true weight of her act of deceit, and she subsequently makes attempts to redeem herself, to atone for her mistake through acts of compassion, both in life and in fiction. Briony’s love of literature and her ability to tell a story are her only true gift, and she seeks to make some sort of amends in the only way she can. Like McEwan, Briony knows that literature has a lasting power, although it does fall regrettably short sometimes.
The literary sensibilities don’t just revolve around Briony and her love of a good story. The novel itself is strewn with literary references, drawing on previous works to aid in characterisation and thematic depth. Mention is made of Nabokov’s Lolita for Briony’s cousin Lola, and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa as a parallel of a young girl’s quest for righteousness against her family’s efforts. There’s also a deeper comparison drawn between Briony’s own novel and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Not only is Northanger Abbey concerned with writing and authorship in the same manner as McEwan’s Atonement, but Northanger Abbey was the first book Austen wrote and the last published, much like Briony’s own final work. There’s also a significant mirroring placed between a fleeting moment between Robbie and Cecilia in the library, surrounded and supported by books, and their lasting togetherness provided by Briony.
Given the thematic concern of literature’s effects on life, not to mention the more significantly heavyweight notions of love, death and redemption, Atonement would have proved a challenge to adapt. As such, the task was handed to Christopher Hampton, a regular writer of period drama of grand profundity, and who won an Oscar back in 1989 for Dangerous Liaisons. Much of the musing on what it is to write and create worlds through decisions and actions has been greatly subdued, allowing for an easier flow of narrative. The characters have also been transported very well, which is, of course, incredibly important considering how their complexity is the thing on which the whole endeavour hinges. Briony is precocious and purposeful, but also immature, jealous and somewhat arrogant. As she grows, the immaturity fades, as does the jealousy, but some of the arrogance still hangs around, although it now comes from a completely different place. Robbie is bright, good-natured, and possessed of a great passion, though it remains somewhat subdued, partly by manners and partly by some hangover of the class system. However, events make him more bitter and angry, as well they would. Cecilia begins rather cold and somewhat curt, but she too holds a great passion and sense of affection, coupled with a feisty stubbornness that she carries through everything.
Director Joe Wright assembles a fine cast for his drama. Young 13-year-old Briony is played by Saoirse Ronan, an incredibly capable actress for such years. Her face and eyes are a constant stream of emotion, conflict, and information on what she’s thinking and feeling. The 18-year-old Briony is taken on by Romola Garai. Garai struggles a bit more with her side of things, although it’s not entirely her fault. Abbie Cornish was set to assume this role, but had to drop out due other commitments, so Garai was sort of a last minute replacement. She did what she could to adapt to the style of performance already in place, but it’s still not entirely there. When left to her own manner of performance, however, she does fair much better. The Briony of later age is played by Vanessa Redgrave, who more than matches the character we come to know, giving so much in such short space of time.
Robbie Turner is played by James McAvoy, who is on fantastic form. He is fresh-faced and charming, but can summon up a great intensity when needed, which he can control very well. He really is excellent in this film. Then there’s Keira Knightley. Knightley gets a lot of flack for her acting skills, or lack of as many people will regard. And whilst I don’t really agree with this, a lot of which amounts to cheap jibes, I’ve never been entirely convinced by her in most things. I’ve always thought that she can convey emotion and act, but only on a ‘one thing at a time’ basis. There’s rarely any sense of duality, nuance or undertone. However, she really does bring something here. She seems to be channelling Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, which is rather appropriate. It may be subtle, but you can see hints of something beneath the surface. It’s not the best performance of the film, but it’s perhaps Knightley’s best work.
There’s also a great supporting turn from Benedict Cumberbatch as Paul Marshall, offering an uneasy charm amongst the players. He seems amiable enough, and people seem to like him, but you still can’t shake the feeling that there’s something off about him. It’s in his stares that go on too long, and his smile that seems a little forced. It’s a nicely layered performance of someone you feel you shouldn’t really trust.
And Joe Wright brings a superb vision to the fore in this film. He knows just where to point his camera to find the small details of character and performance, picking out the minutiae from the novel and making it feel like a much cleaner adaptation. Coupled with this is a frankly exceptional sense of scale, and nowhere is it more evident than in the awesome (and I use that word in the classical sense) five-minute, single-take tracking shot of Dunkirk, following Robbie and his two companions as they wander the hellish, slightly surreal beach scene, littered with soldiers, vehicles, horses and machines, all in varied states of disrepair. The popular perception of Dunkirk is of some kind of triumphant regrouping before an even more triumphant return to push back the Nazi forces in France; the reality is a much bleaker affair. And this single shot, full of such a mix of melancholic beauty and brutality, is truly something to behold. It remains one of the most ambitious and amazing sequences in cinema for a long, long time (although, there’s another shot from 2005’s Warrior King that’s equally impressive, but for completely different reasons).
When I saw Atonement in the cinema, the theatre was pretty packed. By the film’s end, a significant portion of that audience had been reduced to tears, or at least watery eyes and sniffling. Now, I certainly don’t wish to assert that this film is some sort of chick flick or “weepy”, because I don’t think it is. Those two monikers tend to suggest an easy simplicity designed to go after those with a hair-trigger on the tear ducts... Atonement is anything but easy. The final scene of the film delivers such a heavy hit of dramatic irony and emotional weight that it’s rather on par with the sucker punch ending of The Usual Suspects. It’s heavy with implication, and soaked in aching regret, with just that slight tinge of hope. I don’t really wish to overstate things, I only mean to impress on you that I understand the fullness of the story and what it means. And I wish to do that to give a balance to things when I say that I was not amongst those with tears in my eyes at this one. To this day, I’m still not sure if I can say that I really loved this film, or even really liked it. It didn’t leave me completely cold, but it didn’t knock me over either. I understand the film’s meaning, I believe the characters’ journey, I was very impressed with the filmmaking I saw, and certainly don’t regard my time watching it as a waste. It just didn’t strike me like I know it wanted to.
When I look at all of the different elements in the film, considering each one separately, I can see a great feat of filmmaking on show. But a film has to be more than just the sum of its parts and, although many people loved this film deeply, I can’t really count myself with them. I’m not entirely self-centred enough to think that this is the fault of the film, because it did everything right. This is likely just down to me. Perhaps I’m too distant, or I lack some level of emotional maturity to really get this film’s full effect. Maybe I’ll get it in a year or two or ten or twenty. Or, most likely, maybe it will simply always remain just out of my reach. Sometimes when you dislike a film, it’s not the films fault; it’s yours.
Atonement really is a superb film, even though I can’t really claim to have been knocked over by it with the same intensity that so many others felt. The script is a fine work, managing to transpose the characters and themes of the source, whilst leaving the more laborious aspects behind. The direction borders on the virtuoso, confidently handling small details and epic scale. The music and cinematography are excellent and the performances are, mostly, outstanding. It may seem like I’m trying to placate some people by saying it’s great when I wasn’t too bothered with it myself. But it was really very well done, and I have don’t have any major issues with it. It seems that, much like the book, this one will always remain just beyond me.