Director: Joe Wright
By Roderick Heath
Ian McEwan’s celebrated 2001 novel Atonement is rare in its purposeful, forceful cross-breeding of modernist and postmodernist literary concerns (fractured perspectives, the unreliable author, urgent consideration of the nature of will, fate, truth, and fiction) with a story that mingled High Victorian epic elements and genre fiction tropes—a thwarted upstairs/downstairs romance, a wronged man, perverted justice, a shadowy villain, and a lone hero’s efforts to escape the disaster that befell a nation and return to his one true love. It was bound to be a difficult book to adapt. Intrinsic to its nature is more than one specifically literary conceit, starting with the fact that much of it is interior monologue that bends and stretches easily to provide exposition and background detail.
The novel’s first third takes place over the hottest day of the year in summer of 1935 and involves a kaleidoscope of both events and established individual perspectives of inhabitants of the swanky but ugly mansion of the Tallis clan. There’s young fantasist Briony, obsessed with writing and, as most young writers tend to be, a budding control freak who can barely tell truth from fiction; her subtly embittered mother Emily, wrestling with migraines; her elder sister Cecilia, fresh from an unimpressive showing at university, wondering what shape her future life will take; and Robbie Turner, son of the housekeeper whose education has been paid for by the Tallis paterfamilias. There are also three cousins—pretentious 15-year-old Lola and her twin brothers Jackson and Pierrot—foisted on their aunt’s household because their parents are divorcing. Arriving late in the day is Leon, the eldest of the Tallis kids, a cheery, vacuous chap, and his friend, Paul Marshall, a young chocolate magnate.
Over the course of the day, we see a hundred trails of intention, hope, desire, planning, misunderstanding, confusion, and malevolence meeting and entangling, resulting in Robbie and Cecilia’s simmering romance combusting; Briony misinterpreting the scenes between Robbie and Cecelia as proof of him being a sex fiend, cad, and bounder; Lola being raped by Marshall; and Robbie’s subsequent conviction for the rape based on Briony’s falsified testimony. Robbie will end up joining the army to get out of prison just in time to be swept away on the tide of World War II and become involved in the nightmare of Dunkirk, whilst Cecelia utterly rejects her family, becomes a nurse, a job Briony follows her into at age 18, tyrannised by her act.
McEwan makes a show of deconstructing his tale. Dickens, of course, would have found a way to make everything right; Hardy would have torn your guts out with the impossibility of fate—McEwan does both through an elderly Briony’s decision to rewrite history. Briony finishes her life as she first defined it—forcing life to conform to her judgments, having things turn out as they should have, and asserting her godlike control, except this time with fully considered moral perspective rather than adolescent panic. I tend to distrust such postmodern show, but it’s hard to deny McEwan’s ultimate points: that fiction often overtakes truth, and for good reason, the truth being unbearable sometimes, and fiction, a godlike art, is a tool, and sometimes the only tool, to make sense of life. To be as vital a work of cinematic thought as the novel is of literary philosophy, Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton might have had to scrap the whole thing and start from a perspective that involves the medium of film. However, to a certain extent, I couldn’t help but feel that Wright and Hampton had almost managed the impossible and made something rather more immediate and vital than McEwan quite managed to present. His novel showed its hand on the last page, and despite his explaining words, it couldn’t entirely escape the nature of cynical trick, no matter how artfully done. His words sound much more true, and affecting, coming out of the mouth of Vanessa Redgrave, playing Briony on the edge of mortality.
After some striking TV work, including the Ken Loach-style “Nature Boy” (2000), Wright made his cinema debut with his fluent, organic adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This version restored vitality, realism, and social relevance to a shopworn property. Wright immediately established a gift for handling actors and a dynamic interest in using Kubrickian tracking shots to establish a cinema space that is involving, detailed, and realistic – the second ball of Pride and Prejudice was one of the best examples of recent cinema.
Wright explores his gifts here on a grander canvas, conjuring a long shot that soaks up a landscape of violent, absurd, and heart-rending details of the British Army stranded on the beach of Dunkirk, his cinematic answer (with the help of DP Seamus McGarvey) to McEwan’s grunt’s-eye-view of battle chaos. Wright’s handling of the transposition is elsewhere meticulous and aware. The opening scenes, unnervingly scored by Dario Marianelli with a mix of music and typewriter clicks, establishes the omnipresent music of Briony’s imagination, a touch that returns consistently when she appears in the tale, altering its nature, or when she’s been absorbed into a different tune, that of the militarized nursing training of the period. Wright occasionally asserts his medium, unobtrusively at first, then more overtly when digital-age Briony’s videotaped interview stops and rewinds several times, his version of her revisionism. Most importantly, Wright makes clear, by showing different accounts, the fundamental split between young Briony’s view of Robbie (James McAvoy) and Cecilia (Keira Knightley)—intimidation and assault—and their own—seething, half-realised passion—until Briony discovers them rutting in the library of the house, Robbie’s dark suited body apparently having skewered Cecelia’s body in green to the wall like an exotic butterfly in a collection, splayed legs and arms about her.
Wright trumps McEwan in some regards. Cinematic pace makes some of the narrative more cohesive than it was on the page. It’s hard not to be suspicious that the middle-act move from Agatha Christie-esque, country house mystery to ripping war yarn is as much an act of literary opportunism as it is a fulfillment of the theme of the tyranny of circumstance. (The ticket to instant greatness in European literature these days is a WWII theme.) But it does make internal sense. Dunkirk, like Briony’s new ending for the lovers, was a triumph of spin that enabled the future,and the Job-like proliferation of difficulty that stacks cruelly on Robbie’s shoulders. Where Robbie’s and Cecilia separate ends are asides tossed at the reader on the last page, Wright gives their ends forceful dignity, with the terrible, astonishing shot of Cecilia, drowned in a tube station flooded by a ruptured water main, floating off into darkness. It’s a scene that strikes with high tragic force and independence of imagination for a film that is so often stuck wrestling with the demands of accurate transcription. For all the ingenuity expended on this point, Wright and Hampton can’t always maintain a rigorous grip. Robbie’s trek to Dunkirk, anticipating writing letters he will never send and a future he can’t have, is a web of tenses on the page that won’t work properly on screen, and so this bit seems scrappy and unfinished. Nor can the intricacies of the Tallis’ private lives—with Emily’s resentments and Leon’s weakness conspiring with Briony’s lies to destroy Robbie—be put across with competence.
It’s also hard for McEwan’s overall thrust to come across. The book is a thesis on free will and fate. It begins with Briony mystified by the process of her thoughts controlling her finger’s movements, and the miniscule but real mystery of their connection, a point that soon becomes all-important—that thought does control action, that imagination can become fact, that small acts coalesce to become events, and that circumstance can soon tear out of anyone’s control and become inescapable, all-consuming Fate. In the end, Briony revolts against a fate that has entrapped all of them, Robbie most brutally, for whom the last few years of his life are a series of slowly expanding, utterly merciless trial. As a nurse, Briony (played at 18 by Romola Garai) finds in looking after a dying French soldier,that fiction might be a dangerous thing, but it can also make a cruel end less cruel; she despairingly goes along with his dazed perception of her as an English girl he knew as a lad. It’s virtually impossible to communicate this point as this film is presented, which becomes instead just a sad love story, precisely what McEwan was trying to avoid. Perhaps that’s just as well. McEwan gets to have his cake and eat it—conjure an epic yarn and then remind you he’s not responsible for it. Big themes make for Big art, and both McEwan and Wright know they’re onto something the award givers will love. Yet Atonement also resists the grand, cathartic flourishes that make for audience-seducing epicism. Atonement can’t quite congeal into a complete, satisfying whole, partly because of its own intentions. It offers a deliberate anticlimax, making for a yearning, questioning work.
Despite these hesitations and in terms of immediate effect, Atonement is a pretty undeniable achievement. Wright surrenders some of the fresh simplicity that made Pride and Prejudice rare for some gauzy visual effects and prettified touches at the start that belong to a more sentimental type of drama. But his pacing and handling of detail are superb. Rather than distance himself from ’40s weepers, Wright courted them; he had Knightley and McAvoy watch Brief Encounter and its ilk, influencing Knightley’s line readings toward Celia Johnson’s interpretive style. Wright has drawn comparisons of his work to David Lean, but the film of Lean’s that Atonement most evokes is the fragmentary Doctor Zhivago.
Because of the structure, no actor gets a real opportunity to dominate or showboat. Robbie and Cecelia lose psychological subtlety but become vastly more vivid by being filled out by real, gorgeous actors. Knightley is fine but ironically not as strong in the role, theoretically perfect for her, as she was as Lizzy Bennett; neither she nor McAvoy get much chance to expand their characterizations. Briony is best served by the three terrific performances in the various stages of her life: Saoirse Ronan’s incarnation of her self-obsessed youth; Redgrave’s haunted, fading fight; and in between, Garai’s breathtaking embodiment of skin-shivering guilt. Benedict Cumberbatch contributes notably as Marshall, perfectly embodying shallow charm.