Electricity & Lust

Review: Atonement

Posted in film, review, Sam by Sam Unsted on February 4, 2008

Dir: Joe Wright
St: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Saorise Ronan

Unfilmable novels are often, as you can imagine, tricky subjects. It says so on the tin. The worst example ever would have to be the incredibly awful, stupifyingly pointless Battlefield Earth. Novels which become well or easily adapted tend not to pass 400 pages at tops. They tend to have linear narratives, little in the way of heavy flashback exposition or historical context far beyond the passing line. They also, I suppose, tend not to be called unfilmable.

Atonement, and much of Ian McEwan’s back catalogue, is deemed too literary in its motifs and devices to work in cinema. Enduring Love was okay but flawed, buoyed more by performance than the adaptation of the prose. I’ve not read Atonement and I would immediately theorise that this is why I so enjoyed the film. I’ve seen a number of films based on books that I haven’t read which, when you turn to your friend who has, seem not to have made much of an impression. Sometimes, the effect of adaptations can be downright disturbing for those to have experience the novelised form. V For Vendetta, despite a seeming love from US fans especially, was hated by any and all fans of Alan Moore’s graphic novel. I hated the film anyway but my hatred is based on the bewilderment I feel that anyone could have enjoyed such a mishandled jockstrap of a movie. Others though felt it deeper. The genuine offence on one of my viewing partners was something to behold. But there in lies the beauty of the book. The breathing room afforded to prose allows the reader to take in and fall into the surroundings. Look at it purely on its face: you spend far longer with a book. The relationship, unless you speed read, is deeper, more meaningful for the time invested and the care taken. Every word gains importance in a great book. When those words are tranposed to screen, the filmmakers is taking the vision of someone they have never encountered and attempting a recreation. It can’t work for everyone.

Atonement for me seems to capture the essence of the book’s greatness. As I mentioned, I haven’t read the book, but the strength of Atonement lies in the story. This is a film driven by performances in places but it is the central conceit, the deception at the centre of the narrative which drives the movie. The essential story is that a terrible lie is uttered by a younger sister out of jealousy for her older sibling. This lie ruins the life of its victim and the story then follows the courses taken.

James McAvoy is excellent as Robbie but Keira Knightley, and its mostly personal here, just does nothing for me aesthetically or as an actress. Romola Garai is perhaps the strongest of the lot, giving a fantastic performance as the older version of Saoirse Ronan and the younger self of Vanessa Redgrave. Her beating eyes cut through the heart and lead us to a conclusion of crushing sleight of hand, not a cinematic trick but a work of emotional battery.

The technical aspects are perfect. Joe Wright does a fantastic job of capturing the stylised trickery of McEwan’s work and produces a fine tracking shot almost the equal of that in Children of Men. Indeed, it’s really Wright and McEwan which make this such a weeping delight. It’s an emotional powerhouse but retains nuance, subtlety and wonderful sense of tone.


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