Atonement, director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s fine novel, makes clear at the start that it share’s little of its source’s regard for subtlety. “England, 1935” is scrawled letter by letter across the screen, each stroke accompanied by the clang of a typewriter. A series of too-quick jumpshots then follows Briony Tallis (played by Saorse Ronan as a child, Romola Garai as a teenager and Vanessa Redgrave as an old woman) as she gracelessly plods through her English country home. Thankfully, things calm down after that. The narrative is set in motion when Briony witnesses what she naively misinterprets as an act of cruelty by Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of servants who lives on the grounds) towards her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). She goes on to read a pornographic letter that Robbie had entrusted her to deliver to Cecilia (he having mistaken it for a later, revised draft) and interrupt a tryst between the fledgling couple in the library. Given her earlier fears, she naturally sees this as a physical attack and the culmination of Robbie’s sexual deviance. After yet another wrongful accusation by Briony, Robbie is sent away to jail, then to war, effectively dislocating the family (Cecilia cannot forgive her sister’s ignorant machinations nor her parent’s for taking the child’s word) and leading Briony to atone for her mistakes for the remainder of her life.
The film is not without considerable strengths: the cinematography is lush, the actors are all competent (a few are stellar) and a fair amount of the dialogue lives up to McEwan’s perceptive, eloquent repartee. But certain scenes are handled clumsily: there is really no need for the close-up shot of “cunt” being typed across the entire width of the screen as Wright tell us, for the third time, the contents of Robbie’s letter. Nor is it clear why Wright changed McEwan’s poetic description of a single corpse lying at, and intertwined with, the base of a tree into a score of neatly arranged dead children with bullets through their heads. Furthermore, several of the novel’s most indelible (ant not exactly extraneous) sequences are curiously omitted.
In fairness, Atonement is a difficult novel to adapt. Its strength, in my mind, lies more in its psychological acuity than in its romance or period detail. There is also that unconventional structure to tackle: the first and third part of McEwan’s work (as well as its epilogue) focus on the evolution of Briony and her writing, while the middle section abruptly shifts to a World War II narrative, with Robbie as its center. It might be the fault of a baffled marketing department or a deliberate re-imagining of the source material. But Atonement is being sold as, and too often feels like, a conventional romance rather than an intricate look at the mental and creative development of a writer from her confused, fanciful adolescence to wise, measured and mournful old age. When the movie focuses on Briony’s maturing consciousness (as it does when she correctly reinterprets the events of that last idyllic summer via flashback and in Redgrave’s wonderful concluding monologue) it is a success. But there are too many mawkish bits, including a ridiculous postscript showing Cecilia and Robbie frolicking along the cliffs of Dover, that ultimately do a disservice to McEwan and the intentions of his novel.