At the very least, director Joe Wright, together with screenwriter Christopher Hampton, can be commended for fashioning a remarkably efficient filmic adaptation out of Ian McEwan’s titanic tour-de-force of a novel; what takes McEwan 300 pocketbook-sized pages to accomplish, the filmmakers knock off in 45 minutes, without sacrificing too much substance that it would offend the book’s fans. McEwan’s novel is thoroughly internal and deeply psychological, but the filmmakers turn it into a tale of both revealing gestures—the film is full of close-ups of hands, whether furtively brushing beneath a table or spooning sugar into coffee—and pithily significant remarks. In short, they make it cinema.
But Atonement: The Movie has more to offer than mere efficiency. Opening in the English countryside during the build-up to WWII, the film shows no sign of any expense having been spared in its pursuit of visual opulence; it’s a gift to the senses, with the lush feel of a grand, old-fashioned period piece. Thankfully, however, it replaces that genre’s characteristic stuffiness with pulsating vitality. The sense of 19th Century, Victorian propriety is undercut by a throbbing 20th Century sensibility of violence and sexuality; the film is propelled forward by a quivering lust that appears in nearly every character’s glance. (Fine performances are delivered across the board.)
In one ravishing sequence—and the film is full of lavish visuals—Wright cuts between his two central lovers, played by James McEvoy (phenomenal) and Keira Knightley (excellent) as they prepare for dinner; Wright soaks the halcyon country life in a sunstreaked, smoky haze and the gorgeous glow of nostalgia, but he soon punctures the film’s misty romance by confronting us with that most vile of English words, cunt, being spelled-out on a typewriter. (Welcome to the 20th Century!) As a tale of love and misunderstanding, Atonement‘s first half could easily be reworked as romantic farce; instead, the story unfolds as tragedy, exposing a world in which repressed veneers of propriety lead not to healthy sexual expression but to rape (statutory at least), and where disjoined lovers find not reunion but the rampant destruction of the second World War.
By leaping, midway through the film, a few years into the future to find our hero on the march to Dunkirk, Atonement suggests that its central romance is so troubled that it rivals the failed Anglo-Franco resistance to the German invasion of France. The wartime violence isn’t excessive but is still unsparing, from the discovery of a field full of schoolchildren’s lined-up corpses to the systematic assassination of horses at Bray Dunes. (The uninterrupted tracking shot upon our hero’s arrival at the Bray Dunes is a masterpiece of form and the year’s most technically impressive sequence.) The colors go muted in the film’s second half, though the light remains brilliant, and the haze that was once so romantic takes on a character of menace. Gradually, love is smothered by war.
McEwan’s novel is told in three spatiotemporally distinct sections, each with tremendous cinematic potential. (As though begging to be set in celluloid!) Hampton, however, by necessity—for the sake of a trim and decent running time—pares down the novel’s latter sections, especially the second, and as a result the film’s three segments, taken together, don’t quite add up properly; by retaining the novel’s tripartite structure but stripping some of those episodes’ narrative purpose and intensity, the film winds up feeling flighty and unfocused. Why, exactly, are we in France during WWII? Or a London hospital?
Finally, McEwan’s subtext about the nature of artistic creation, namely its ability to improve upon the dreary misery of real life, feels incongruously set within the film’s romance; by trying to stay too faithful to its source material, Atonement winds up a bit muddy. Some novels just won’t make good films, but if Atonement just had to get made as a feature film, I don’t see how Wright and Hampton could have done it any better. From its settings to its leads, it sure is pretty, at least.