Dir. Joe Wright; Saoirse Ronan, James McAvoy, Keira Knightley
[3 out of 4 stars]
It is difficult for me to review Atonement (2007) by itself since the novel, written by Ian McEwan in 2001, is one of my favorites, and a comparison is evident. I found that Wright’s adaptation, while often visually beautiful, lacked the nuance and emotional complexity that make the novel such a masterpiece. McEwan’s prose is slow and measured, and he builds scenes with careful detail. This quality was severely diminished in the film adaptation, which focuses on the wealthy Tallis family who lives in the English countryside in 1935. One night, naive 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) tells a lie that has permanent consequences not only for her own life but also for the lives of her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy).
I understand that such a brilliant novel was difficult to translate to film. So many perspectives are included that, short of an endless voiceover, there is no way to expose every thought happening in a character’s head as the book does. However, the film approaches many pivotal scenes backwards. For example, Cecilia and Robbie’s sexual encounter in the library is shown first through Briony’s eyes, making the scene seem shocking and violent. In reality, it is the culmination of delicate and awkward interactions between the two. Although the film later shows us the scene through Cecilia’s eyes, the climax has already been given away, so we do not get to experience the lead-up to it. Without the emotional weight of the previous scenes, their culmination is much less impactful. Sequencing this event in reverse (with Cecilia’s perspective first and then Briony’s) would have allowed the viewer to experience its lead-up slowly and painfully, with the characters, which is what makes the novel so powerful. The story is much more poignant when the nuance is highlighted.
Nonetheless, it is often a beautiful film (which makes it that much more maddening that the emotional impact is lacking). The famous five-minute tracking shot following Robbie along Dunkirk Beach, for instance, is exceptional, as are the many nature shots that range from a close up on a tiny frog to wide landscape shots of grasses rustling in the wind. These shots place us squarely in an unmistakeable setting: Europe during World War 1. Such an approach allows viewers to feel fully immersed in the characters’ experience, whether that be whacking weeds with a stick on the Tallis property or striding across the sands of Dunkirk Beach.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is Ronan, who, at 13, is one of the youngest actresses ever nominated for an Oscar in a supporting role. Her clear-eyed, confident aura spearheads the first third of the film (after which she is replaced by actresses playing older versions of Briony) and provides the crucial basis for all following events. On the other hand, Knightley’s performance is unexceptional. She fills the role of Cecilia as she often does many of her other roles: with the same breathy voice and perplexed or piqued expression. Cecilia deserved to be played by an actress who could convey more inner turmoil. Finally, McAvoy played a decent Robbie, although not an outstanding one. He is a talented actor and exhibited all of the necessary emotions, but I found myself wishing for more depth.
Despite its beautiful cinematography and generally successful acting, the film lacked the nuance that makes the book one of my favorites. I would have preferred to see more care taken to build the emotion throughout the film. Without it, the pivotal ending lacked its incredible punch, and not just because the ending was altered slightly to make it less poignant. The whole experience left me feeling unsatisfied, and rather than wanting to watch the film again, I felt the urge only to reread the novel.