VIDEO: The trailer for Atonement
Writers grow tiresome when they (a) write about writers, (b) write about writing, or (c) write about the difference between “fiction” and “reality.” One exception is Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a superbly crafted and eloquent meta-narrative that triumphs as both meta and narrative. Which would seem to make it an “unfilmable” book — it’s self-reflecting, metaphorical, and introspective, all qualities that tend to elude an essentially two-dimensional medium. But director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton tap into the underlying passion and pathos from which all the absurdity, irony, and poetry follow.
Born Again: James McAvoy and Atonement. By Cole Haddon
Atonement | Directed By Joe Wright | Written by Christopher Hampton based on the novel by Ian MCewan | With Keira Knightley, James MCavoy, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn, and Vanessa Redgrave | Focus Features | 123 minutes
For the most part. Sometimes Wright tries too hard — in the beginning, for example, when he not only shows us a dollhouse that’s a miniature of the Surrey estate where the first half of the 1935-set story takes place but even has the opening titles spelled out with typewriter keys. Fortunately, this writerly self-consciousness is redirected onto 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan). An aspiring playwright, Briony has written a chaste little one-acter to be performed for the edification of family and guests. But actual events on the estate prove more intriguing to her imagination. Drawn to a window by a buzzing wasp, she spots her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) at the fountain with Robbie (James McAvoy), the upwardly mobile son of the plucky housekeeper (cue Brenda Blethyn). They are engaged in very strange behavior indeed. She sees them again acting mysteriously in the library, and all this is capped off by something truly horrible that happens later that night. Briony has the novelist’s eye for detail and, as her sister later — too late — comments, an overactive fancy, and she pieces together a narrative connecting all these dots that is clever, and dead wrong.
Wright manages this tragedy of manners, seemingly the least cinematic part of McEwan’s book, with crisp wit and visual bravura. It’s like a raunchy Oscar Wilde farce with fatal stakes, and its imagery, almost as an afterthought, illuminates the links among language, loss, and desire. In short, it’s a tour de force.
So when it comes to McEwan’s own tour de force, a breathtaking account of Robbie’s participation (for reasons directly related to Briony’s miscalculated storytelling) in the British retreat to the Channel in 1940, Wright is ready to roll. As in a single four-and-a-half-minute steadicam shot of the chaos of the evacuation beach that discloses such “surreal” images as a squad of skinny-dipping African soldiers, a line of cavalry horses shot in the head, drunken Tommies on a kiddies’ merry-go-round, a shipwreck out of Pirates of the Caribbean, a Ferris wheel, and the towering black-and-white faces of Jean Gabin and Arletty projected in a shell-shocked movie theater. These are not so much disasters of war as they are high points in a Dunkirk theme-park ride.
Briony, meanwhile, has been forging her conscience in the smithy of her soul, first as an 18-year-old volunteer nurse (Romola Garai) and later as a grande dame of letters (cue Vanessa Redgrave) who has just finished a novel called Atonement. Fiction, it seems, can cause real damage, but it also offers illusory consolation. When presented in a film as accomplished as this one, that’s almost compensation enough.