ATONEMENT dir Joe Wright
Both novels and films are made things, are fictions. The difference between then is that the only collaboration involved in a novel is that between the writer and the reader, the contract that for as long as is possible we will sit in a chair and swallow whatever they tell us about a time, a place and the nature of human and other beings. A film, on the other hand, has been through the contingencies of planning and practicality and the collaboration of director, screenwriter, composer, cinematographer and actors even before we agree to sit in the dark passively for two hours, measuring it against our expectations of it. To a varying degree, the spectator is more passive than the reader because more people are working on us.
It is perhaps largely for this reason that Joe Wright and Christopher Hampton's version of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement is far less problematic and more pleasurable an experience than the overwrought book. We expect a film, particularly a film that belongs to that genre which can be termed High-Toned British Heritage Movies, to be full of frocks and furniture, all of them carefully researched. A novelist has to remember that elegance is often achieved at the cost of discomfort and is all too likely, as McEwen does in the first chapters of his book, to add layers of period detail, attitude and manners to his basic story to a point where the reader feels hectored, lectured and exhausted.
Further, we will swallow things on screen that stretch credulity on a page where we have leisure to say 'yes but'. McEwan asks us to believe that 1930s class prejudice and an obscenity in a loveletter would confirm an immature girl's fabulations to a point where an innocent man would be sent to jail. All of his meditations on unreliable narration, the novelist as god, and all of his research rest on this shaky foundation – which is why the novel reads so much better in its later stages with the disgraced Robbie at war and Briony trying to expiate her crime against him, and her sister who loves him, in a hospital overwhelmed by the aftermath of Dunkirk. And the film has the tact to leave the novel's dialogue with LP Hartley's The Go-Between to our post-film discussions.
Film, though, is all about our reception of observed dramatic gesture – when James McAvoy as Robbie looks back in anguish at his lover Cecilia, we are too busy being impressed by performed emotion to examine the tawdry contrivances that let McEwan create the context for the scene. A screenplay of a novel is all about cutting – Hampton's reduction of McEwan takes out almost everything but the bones of story and then drips detail back with tact and craft. His additions are well-conceived images – a field of dead schoolgirls may be a horror of war or Robbie's dream revenge on Briony; in any case it is seconds that replace pages of McEwen ruminating on evacuation and atrocity.
The film can remind us of Briony as narrator and liar simply by having the clatter of her typewriter act as punctuation and percussion in the swooping romantic score. The novel details the shifts back and forth of Cecilia's genteel emotions as she accepts her love for a servant's graduate son; the film has Keira Knightley excellently to do the work of all this with a toss of the head or a flaring of the nostrils.
Film, in short, always both shows and tells. Wright tops McEwen's description of the Dunkirk beaches with a bravura – some might say show-off – pan which follows Robbie's walk for long minutes round bandstand and rounabouts and drunken soldiers singing hymns and bawdy.
It is perhaps for this reason that the ending when we learn that the reuniting of the lovers and their partial absolution of Briony never happened, that their happiness is a fiction she has invented as the only consolation she can give, works better when Vanessa Redgrave takes Briony over from the younger selves of Romola Garai and Saiorse Ronan and explains things to a television interviewer rather than directly to us. The misty-filtered illusory ending is so very much a genre trope in cinema that it works emotionally far better than in the novel, where a lie is a lie.
Sorry for the lack of lj-cut, but this new rich text option is hard to edit if you end up not realizing the entry is using it.