Movie Review – Atonement (2007)
by HELEN GEIB
Atonement is an emotions stirring adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan. Although problematic as an adaptation, the film well satisfies as drama. If you like a good cry, this is the movie for you.
The story opens in 1935 at an English country house party. There we are introduced to the three main characters in the drama: Cecilia (Keira Knightley), the older daughter of the family; her younger sister Briony (played by Saoirse Ronan as a child and Romola Garai as an adult); and Robbie (James McAvoy), son of the housekeeper and the sisters’ childhood friend. Cecilia and Robbie are in love and circling each other on the cusp of acknowledging their feelings. Briony at 13 years old has a precocious intelligence and literary ambitions, but a still childish mind. Her emotional immaturity leads her into giving false testimony against Robbie and thereby separating the lovers. It is Briony’s lifelong compulsion to atone for her act of betrayal that gives rise to the film’s title.
The second half of the film picks up their story five years later, in 1940. Robbie is serving in the army and caught up in the evacuation of the British forces at Dunkirk. Cecilia is estranged from her family and working as a nurse in London. Briony, in emulation of her sister, is in nurse’s training at another London hospital. Where the events of the 1935 segment are confined to a single weekend and give equal attention to Cecilia, Briony, and Robbie, the 1940 segment covers a longer period of time and mostly moves between Briony and Robbie’s stories.
Atonement is a lovely movie to look at. The production design effectively evokes both time and place and the emotional register of the three principal settings: a pre-War English country estate, the beaches at Dunkirk, and London during the Blitz. The period recreation in the sets and costumes is flawless. The art direction and lighting create rich and vivid colors. Director Joe Wright has a penchant for slow pans, sustained tracking shots, and long takes that combine in an appealing visual aesthetic of fluid camera movements and sweeping views.
The script faithfully renders the characters and main plotline of the novel, while significantly condensing it. The novel covers a longer period of time than the film as it continues Briony’s story after the war, and is divided into multiple sections that vary in point of view and narrative focus. The script eliminates several sections entirely and most of the details of Robbie’s story in the Dunkirk segment. Although leaving out much of interest, the abridgment was necessary to make the story manageable for a feature film adaptation and is very skillfully done. I seldom saw the seams and viewers unfamiliar with the source are unlikely to feel that anything is missing.
Atonement is not problematic as an adaptation because of its plot abridgment, but rather because of its excision of the novel’s themes and tone. The filmmakers’ solution to the very real problem of how to translate the novel’s challenging themes from page to screen is to ignore them. This approach will be familiar to people who saw Wright’s last film, Pride and Prejudice. Although written by different screenwriters, the two films take the same conceptual approach to adaptation: great fidelity to plot and characters coupled to near total disregard of intellectual content.
On the evidence of these two films, this is an inspired solution to adapting great novels into feature length films. In Atonement, the filmmakers have made an absorbing and affecting film from a novel that I had considered unadaptable by seizing on the emotional heart of the story and singlemindedly devoting every aspect of the filmmaking to eliciting an emotional response to that story. Filmmakers with a different sensibility may make a better adaptation someday, but it will come in the form of a much longer TV miniseries and it won’t play on the heartstrings anything like as well as this movie does.