Sunday, December 16, 2007


I have heard that Ian McEwan is a terrific novelist, and I fully intend to one day get around to one of his books. But I can say, having seen two adaptations of McEwan novels, that they don't make the transition to the screen very well. Enduring Love was a navel-gazing mess of a movie. I wrote in my original review:

"I'd have preferred enduring just about any unpleasant activity over Enduring Love, an utterly joyless exercise that's as preposterous as it is dull. This is clearly a film that thinks it has something to say about the nature of love, but for the life of me I can't determine what that thing could possibly be."

And now we have Atonement, another film about the unbearable pain of an impossible love. It's fairly evident to me why Joe Wright's screen version (based on a script by Christopher Hampton, best known for writing Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liasons) doesn't work - everything revolves around an event that happens within the first 45 minutes or so of the movie. In a novel, characters can spent half a book reflecting upon something that has already happened. It's prose - the unfolding of events in some kind of synchronous order isn't required to maintain reader interest, so long as the writing itself is entertaining.

But in a narrative movie, you can't really have the crucial event go down at the end of the First Act and then whisk people away to other, less interesting action with zero stakes, populated by a bunch of strange new characters. Actually, "can't" is too strong a word here. I can think of several films that do, in fact, unfold in similar fashion to Atonement, in which an incident early on in the film inspires all the conversation and attention for the rest of the film. Even this year, No Country for Old Men spends its final half hour considering the action that has come before.

What I mean to say is that Atonement failed to keep my interest through its various time jumps and epilogues.

We open in an English manor in 1935. Young Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) lives with her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley, who starred in Wright's previous film, Pride and Prejudice) and mother Emily (Harriet Walter), along with a large staff of servants and their families. Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) is one such employee, working on the estate as a gardener and planning and future career as a doctor.

Briony, an imaginative girl with a bit of a crush on Robbie, sees something she should not and makes an ill-considered accusation. She winds up causing both Cecilia and Robbie a great deal of trouble, and their woes only increase with the onset of World War II.

After Briony's accusation is made and the consequences meted out, Wright's film jumps ahead five years. Briony (now played by Romola Garai) and Cecilia are now nurses working at a veteran's hospital, but they are not on speaking terms. (Briony, we come to understand, is tormented by guilt over her actions and obsessed with trying to set things right). Robbie is serving as a private in the Army, doomed to the lowest rung on the military ladder because of Briony's misdeed years before.

I'm still not really feeling Keira Knightley, I must say. In the past, I've said she wavers constantly between two modes - pouty/petulant, and headstrong. Here, she spends the first act in Mode One, and the remainder of the film in Mode Two. You can always tell when she's evoking steely resolve...because it's pretty much all she ever freaking evokes.

This is the third film I have seen starring James McAvoy, and I only know that because I have looked him up on IMDb. (He was Mr. Tumnus in Narnia and the star of Last King of Scotland.) How boring do you have to be to star in three films in as many years and still be such a nobody? THIS boring.

The rest of the cast is fine. Both Brionys, the younger and older incarnations, are terrific, and the transition from one to the other is seamless. Brenda Blethyn plays Robbie's mother, a servant in the Tellis household, and steals a few scenes. The camera work by Seamus McGarvey is also really solid, with some really nice use of muted colors. (There's one beautiful shot of a soldier walking in a field of tulips.) There's an impressive tracking shot that has to last a few minutes at least, in which McGarvey's camera tours around a French beach where thousands of British soldiers are waiting to board ships and head home, but it's also distracting and serves no real dramatic purpose in the movie. The transition from the story of intrigue at a British manor to a war movie is abrupt enough without long, graceful establishing shots setting off the pace and calling attention to themselves.

Like everything after the time jump in Atonement, the tracking shot would have more impact if there were some importance to it, some reason we had to see what's going on at this beach. Robbie spends the entire remainder of the film waiting to go home. Just sitting around, waiting, thinking about how he came to be in France. Cecilia spends her time waiting for Robbie to get back. Briony spends her time thinking about what she did, waiting to hear back from Cecilia to see whether or not she'll be forgiven. That's a lot of sitting around and waiting.

Vanessa Redgrave shows up and plays Briony as an older woman, and she's fine, but these sequences are not at all cinematic. They play like Hampton just transcribed the screenplay from the novel. Seriously, Redgrave spends the end of the film staring into the camera and explaining to you what you have just seen, and then the title of the movie. (She's being interviewed by Anthony Minghella for TV cameras at the time).

It's kind of embarrassing, really. The film might as well have ended with Minghella in a smoking jacket with a pipe, in an easy chair, closing the book version of "Atonement" and wishing you a safe drive home. If you can't think of a way to show us what happens in the book visually in at least a semi-compelling fashion, don't adapt that book. Simple as that.

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