Which are worse - the growing pains of puberty or those of literary ambition? That is the question posed by Atonement, the latest in a long line of Ian McEwan adaptations and the most lavish yet, an easy favourite for most impressive British film of the year. Combining a first act set within the insular confines of upper class English life in 1935 with a second that uses the horror and carnage of the Dunkirk evacuation as a backdrop, it lays claim to the epic and grandiose - a kind of Brideshead Revisited meets Saving Private Ryan. But in message, it brings to mind another film - A Passage to India - though here the scapegoating is assigned in terms of class rather than race.
Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) is the son of the Tallis family housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn). Recognised as gifted, he was educated at Cambridge at the family’s expense and having developed a posh accent, there is now little to distinguish this working class lad from his betters. In fact so complete is his assimilation that his burgeoning love for eldest daughter, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), is irresistibly becoming manifest and indeed it is reciprocated.
Various encounters between the pair are witnessed by Cecilia’s thirteen year old sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who puts her own constructions on them with the help of her lurid but uniformed imagination. Briony is a budding writer and her latest effort, a play, is received with disinterest by fellow youngsters Lola and twin boys Jackson and Pierrot. Later, when the twins go missing and a night search commences, Briony becomes involved in a drama far larger than her wildest imaginings when she is witness to a crime perpetrated in the shadows. Already seeing the day’s sweep of events in fictional terms, she dutifully joins the dots of the emerging plot and presents her version as fact, with disastrous consequences.
Cut to five years later and Robbie is now a battle-worn private, detached from his unit and caught up in the mass exodus to Dunkirk. Cecilia and Briony - now grown up and played by Romola Garai - are war nurses stationed in London, though they have no contact as Briony’s actions have destroyed her sister’s life. Now begins Briony‘s atonement, a penance of washing bedpans and comforting the dying whilst she comes to terms with the scale of her girlhood folly and attempts to patch it up with Cecilia. In a brief third act, where Briony is now a celebrated novelist in her seventies, played by Vanessa Redgrave, it’s revealed that her atonement has been a lifelong process.
The original novel is a dense and complex work, where the luxuriant tapestry of Ian McEwan’s virtuoso prose is rolled out to capture every shade and nuance of what happens, in a performance of self-conscious bedazzlement. Christopher Hampton’s screenplay necessarily pares the novel down a great deal and in so doing makes both gains and losses. In the first section, we lose the sense of protracted almost unbearably queasy build-up to the debacle and the full impact of the cruelty of the British class system, where the tables can be turned so drastically on an individual in Robbie’s position when dictated by circumstances - in the film it’s all over in a flash. In the second section we lose the mythological scale of Robbie’s journey through France to save himself and how the traumatic horrors of war register as a logical continuation of the trauma he suffered in 1935 - again in the film he gets to Dunkirk in practically no time.
However, by simplifying Hampton also clarifies, stripping the story to its essence, and director Joe Wright does a very effective job within this tighter framework. He captures well the sultry languor of that hot summer day in 1935, where sexual tension is underscored by the buzzing of insects and Keira Knightley’s entries and exits from the water of a fountain and a lake are heavy with subtext, and he creates just the right mood in which the mind of a precocious but silly young girl will overheat with jealousy and rage. The blossoming romance between Cecilia and Robbie is well handled too, with the peeling of the layers of repression and the final explosion into passion eminently believable.
In the Dunkirk section, the individual and collective devastation of defeat and retreat are compressed into a single steadicam tracking shot across the beach, where soldiers lie wounded, horses are shot and radiators smashed to render them useless to the Germans, and Robbie and his mate Tommy (Daniel Mays) mingle and become lost in the chaos, whilst others surrender to gay abandon, playing on a fairground roundabout like crazy children or banding together for a singsong. It is a tour de force of extemporized camerawork and action, destined to take its place in a Top Ten of Tracking Shots along with those of A Touch of Evil and The Player. Its very audaciousness is a mark of Wright’s ambition and confidence, and his overall camera handling shows how far he’s come already from the distracting and overly tricksy camerawork of Pride and Prejudice, which felt too modern and out of synch with the period material.
If Wright’s development onwards from Pride and Prejudice is in evidence in Atonement, so is Keira Knightley’s. She gets the waspish insouciance of an upper class girl spot on, and she convinces too in the brief moments of passion and later pain. How different this is from her Elizabeth Bennett, where she felt miscast and out of her depth, like she was walking in shoes two sizes too big. At still only twenty-two, Knightley is coming along nicely, as further evidenced by her performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End, where she was more dominant than in the earlier pieces and more of a match for masters of the craft like Depp and Rush.
Praise must also go to James McAvoy, whose put-on posh accent is perfect for the character and who shows the transition from inner contentment in the early section to the desolation and helpless anger of later all too well. As for Briony, her character is beautifully rendered by a miracle of casting, taking three actresses and really persuading us they are the same person. Saoirse Ronan makes a superb nasty little girl, all sullen looks and deviousness, whilst Romola Garai resembles her uncannily in a later incarnation, now penitent and meek. And though only given a short time on screen, Vanessa Redgrave marshals up the final essence of Briony with a moving grace.
So overall is Atonement’s tale of love and war a match for that of The English Patient? Like that work, it aims to tug the emotions while retaining high seriousness and it succeeds reasonably, though it does veer into sentimentality towards the end, with the help of Debussy and real newsreel footage. The novel’s final section employs deliberate artistic vagueness and obfuscation, but the film discards all this and spells it out for us, and in so doing heads directly into tearjerker territory. The people who will enjoy Atonement and reach for their handkerchiefs are the same people who cried at Princess Diana’s funeral and their numbers are large. As a piece of middlebrow mass entertainment, it works and its inevitable popularity, here and across the Atlantic, will inject some verve into our perpetually anaemic home industry, which is indeed something to be applauded.