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February 1, 2008


Movie Review – Atonement (2007)


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.

3 stars

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Feb 3 2008

    I was really surprised to see this turn up as an Oscar nom. Not as surprised as I was to see Michael Clayton, but still – it didn’t seem to be that popular, and the trailer didn’t really grab me. Now I’m curious to see it, of course.

  2. Helen
    Feb 4 2008

    I was also surprised by the nomination because I didn’t think it had received much notice. After seeing it, though, I can understand. It is definitely the kind of movie Oscar loves: period drama; British; literary antecedents; impeccable credentials behind and in front of the camera.

  3. Rishi
    Feb 17 2008

    I always say that it is unfair to compare movies to the books that they are based on. It almost grants an unfair advantage to those films that are written directly to the screen. How often does a literary adaptation live up to the original? I think, over 90 percent of the time, when a film is based upon a book that I enjoy, I am disappointed by the way it turns out.

    I have not read the novel, and I absolutely loved this film. It was beautifully shot and surprisingly fast-paced for its subject matter. I expect this to turn up on my Top Ten list.

  4. Helen
    Feb 17 2008

    You raise a good discussion point. I both agree and don’t agree that a movie that is an adaptation (of a novel, play, video game, or whatever) should be judged on its own merits. The film exists complete in itself and the first stage of criticism is to respond to it without reference to its source. I always try, as far as is possible, to put the source out of my mind and approach the adaptation as if it was an original work. In this instance, I enjoyed Atonement and rate it a good (though not great) film, independent of its merits as an adaptation of a novel that I greatly admire.

    At the same time, Atonement necessarily invites comparison with its source by the very fact that it is an adaptation. It’s a critical dead end to pretend that an adaptation exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, comparing a film adaptation to its source can often be very illuminating in focusing in on the strengths and flaws of the film and, as the reflection trains interest on the original, on the source as well.

    This kind of analysis does not necessarily reflect badly on the films. Some adapatations improve on their sources. Particularly in the case of adaptations of popular fiction, the movie may have lasting value while the book is deservedly forgotten. In other cases, the book and film may each offer unique pleasures; the Lord of the Rings books/films is an example.

    The possibilities and limits of cinematic adaptation is something that has always interested me greatly. Atonement the movie makes for a particularly intriguing case study because it is simultaneously very faithful and not at all faithful to Atonement the novel. That contradiction throws light on both works.

  5. Rishi
    Feb 18 2008

    I will agree with you that adaptations frequently offer unique pleasures that you cannot get from the books. This is especially true with films that use the book as a launching point, such as the Lord of the Rings films or the Spike Jonze film Adaptation (very loosely based on The Orchid Thief).

    It also frequently happens with plays. There are at least two good versions of Hamlet, for example.

    But, I challenge you to find films that actually improve upon the novel that they were based on. I am not talking about any source material, since I think plays and comic books lend themselves particularly well to adaptation. Short stories are even easier to adapt than novels. But, can you actually name ten films that were based on novels that are superior to their source material?

  6. Helen
    Feb 19 2008

    I accept your challenge!

    10 movies that are better than the books:
    Gone With the Wind
    From Here to Eternity
    King Rat
    The Firm
    Enchanted April
    Ice-Cold in Alex
    Jurassic Park
    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    The Long Memory
    Fahrenheit 451

    Most of these are good movies based on popular fiction of no particular literary merit. You could call this the “bad books get made into movies, too” category. Jurassic Park and The Firm are not especially great films, but they are superior to the books. King Rat, The Long Memory, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Ice-Cold In Alex are very good movies based on indifferent novels.

    Others are good movies made from novels that are badly marred by bigotry. Gone With the Wind obviously belongs in this category (although it could equally be moved to the first category); the movie is still racist, but it is hugely superior to the novel. From Here to Eternity has real literary merit, but the pervasive misogyny so infects the characterization of the commander’s wife (the character played by Deborah Kerr in the film) that she is not believable as a real person. The script, aided by Kerr’s performance, remedies that flaw.

    Fahrenheit 451 is a concept more than it is a fully developed novel. The film deepens the characterizations, elaborates on the future world, and earns a strong emotional response.

    Enchanted April is my favorite example of a movie that improves on its source. The novel is good, but the movie is superior for two reasons: the glorious spring garden more effectively serves its critical plot purpose when filmed in glowing color than when described in words; and, the film re-writes a very poor plot point to turn my least favorite couple into my favorite. Interestingly, there’s an earlier film adaptation from the early ’30s that does not offer either feature, and is, indeed, not as good as the book.

  7. Rishi
    Feb 20 2008

    All right, you make a fair point. I still maintain that it is especially difficult to make an adaptation of a good novel. And I often find that I enjoy both film and novel more if I’ve seen the film first. Of course, it’s futile to avoid reading certain books on the off chance that they’ll be adapted into a movie worth seeing.

  8. Helen
    Feb 20 2008

    You’ll get no argument from me that good books are difficult to adapt. It’s a sliding scale: the better the book, the less likely the adaptation will be good. I think the best books to adapt are ones that have good plots and interesting settings, but aren’t of much literary interest otherwise. It doesn’t matter too much to me if I read the book first or see the movie first, as long they don’t come too close together! Back to back is fatal because I can’t stop thinking about how the two works compare.

  9. Rishi
    Feb 20 2008

    Well, the example that I keep thinking about is The Godfather. I have never read the Mario Puzo book, but my understanding is that it’s just pulp.

  10. Miriam
    Feb 23 2008

    A bit late to this, but it’s always an interesting talking point. I think we could probably make a surprisingly lengthy list of movies better than their original novel – Laura and Pow Wow Highway come quickly to my mind. A novel with decent story and characters can really come to life as a movie when the actors add dimension and movie magic goes to work.

  11. Mar 25 2008

    Atonement looked and felt a lot like Pride and Prejudice, impeccable setting, acting and dialogue. come to think of it, both movies have the same director, leading lady and both are based on books…

    Atonement bit depressing toward the end, but over all very well done.