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Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement, as filmed by Joe Wright, will keep the chatterers busy for a while. The production is gorgeous, even grand, with an old-fashioned sensibility and a very up-to-date gloss. The acting is very fine; all of the principals present people whom you'd like to see more of. The movie serves up a 24-karat Epic Romance. But is it, on any but the grossest scale, independently coherent?
In other words, if you haven't read the book, will the film make sense? The question seems apt enough, given that people who have read the book are asking it. Is the film a genuine adaptation, or is it something more akin to an illustration?
Not being a theory purist particularly concerning this least pure of artistic forms I won't fault Atonement if all it does is paint and animate scenes that I have read in a commanding novel. I will treasure it for its moodiness (greatly enhanced by the music of Dario Marianelli, a composer who knows a new thing or two about percussion) and for its still patience: Atonement is always ready to saturate the eyes with its rich compositions. Its boatload of top-drawer actors doing top-drawer work will always beckon loudly from the DVD library shelf, and I know that I shall never read the book as many times as I watch the video not nearly.
There is nothing about the adaptation, in other words, that grated or rubbed me the wrong way. I did not expect it to be different. I have learned not to expect much of anything from translations of fiction into film. Movies are usually interesting for virtues that novels don't possess, and vice versa. I routinely "cast" stories that seem likely to be dramatized, but my choices are never honored by Hollywood producers yet I forgive them. They have a job to do, and taking my advice is not part of the job description.
It's only when producers miscast that I cavil, because miscasting can ruin a picture. (Daniel Craig, for example, played the wrong part in the last McEwan adaptation, Enduring Love.) No one in Atonement is miscast. Everyone is rather perfect, really. Keira Knightley, finally allowed to be as brittle as her bone structure, sizzles with arrogance before breaking down in raw shame. James McAvoy (the new Russell Crowe?) does an impeccable job of showing us where his character's diffidence ends and the manliness begins. All three actresses in the principal role that of Briony Tallis, at 12, 18, and eightysomething are indelible. That's no less remarkable for the fact that the first two, Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai, are not well known than it is for the fact that Vanessa Redgrave, the third, actually acts for the first time since Howard's End.* Ms Ronan looks so tantalizingly like a very young Gemma Jones and in a role that seems written with Ms Jones in mind that I constantly expected the older actress's fine features to pop into view. The supporting actors Brenda Blethyn, Harriet Walter, Benedict Cummerbatch, Juno Temple, and Daniel Mays chief among them show themselves to be worthy of the film's august tone. Everything from Sarah Greenwood's production design to its biggest star, Stokesay Court, seems just right.
And yet. It may very well turn out that Atonement is essentially unfilmable. What is it about, after all? A disrupted love affair? A young adolescent's misjudgment in the face (threat, that is) of sexuality? The horrors of war? What distinguishes Mr McEwan's novel from other books with these themes is its focus on the otherness, the peculiar unreality, of things that happen in a novel. Atonement is, on several levels, about the uses and abuses of memory or, if you like, the uses and abuses of storytelling. It is not the work of natural realism that it might seem to be. But any attempt to film it intelligibly must fix upon that realism the love story, the vindictive child and sacrifice an essential complication, one that troubles the reader while remaining invisible to the viewer. Or so one might argue.
But to be sure, we shall have to wait for the chattering to die down, and for the thinking and the reflection to begin. Atonement the movie deserves no less. (December 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press