Friday, August 24, 2007

Film Review: Atonement

Last week, whilst booking tickets for the Bourne Ultimatum, I stumbled across an ad for a gala screening of the film version of Ian McEwan's novel 'Atonement', which I read on holiday and loved. I went along, got to see the film two weeks in advance, and even got a free book and copy of Pride & Prejudice on DVD for my troubles. Awesome. Here, then, is a review of the film.


It is the summer of 1935, Cecelia Tallis (Kiera Knightley) has just returned from Cambridge, as has her childhood friend Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). An incident at a fountain sets them on a path which would seem to lead to a very happy ending. However, Cecelia's younger sister Briony witnesses the incident, and reaches a different conclusion. Her misunderstanding, coupled with a series of events, leads her to falsely accuse Robbie of a serious crime and she will spend the rest of her life trying to seek penance for her involvement.

Adapted from Ian McEwan's critically acclaimed novel of the same name, Atonement is a film as tragic, and sorrowful as it is visually beautiful. Sumptuous, lush, gorgeous, all these and more superlatives can be attached to a film which packs more visual splendour into every frame than any film in recent memory. The scope of the film is incredible, veering from the relatively small and intimate moments near the start of the film to the huge, sprawling scenes on the beaches of northern France in which hundreds of extras can be seen, all interacting with each other and the world around them.

Director Joe Wright, who previously helmed the better-than-expected Pride and Prejudice film, brings a stately, simplistic directorial style to proceedings. Though the angles and camera angles may not be inventive or original, they really don't need to be since Wright realises that the images on screen are beautiful enough as is. The best example of this can be found midway through the film on the beaches during the retreat from Dunkirk. As Robbie arrives on the beach, the camera follows him and other soldiers on the beach as they mill about. The scene is shot in one continous, four and a half minute shot and whilst the camera doesn't move around much it takes in the sheer scale of what is going on, showing the personal side of the English retreat from France, both in terms of the bravery of those involved and the sheer chaos and madness of the situation.

Elsewhere, the film employs simple but highly effective techniques to convey the emotional journey of the characters. The early part of the film, which takes part in 1935, is given a hazy, wistful feeling to it through the use of soft-focus lenses and bright lighting. The time after Briony accuses Robbie, though, is shot with a more naturalistic style. This rather simple transition perfectly underlines the fact that Briony destroys the idyllic world which she, Cecelia and Robbie had previously known.

In the main roles, Knightley and McAvoy are very impressive. Knightley's progression from a cold, distant girl to a lovelorn woman is really very good, displaying acting skills that she seems to have kept carefully hidden throughout much of the rest of her career. Likewise, Robbie's journey from idealistic young man to a soldier is carried off superbly by McAvoy, a very good thing considering how much more time he is on screen than Knightley. The only thing that counts against their performances is the super-posh accents they put on which initially feel very forced, though they do get less noticeable as the film progresses.

As an adaptation it is a great piece of work. It takes just enough liberties with the source material to make the film work as a completely separate piece from the novel. Mostly it's very faithful, though it does reverse the order in which characters become aware of events and alter the ending slightly from the book. Initially the decision to reverse when characters see certain events seemed unnecesary but in the context of the film it really works well. Likewise, the ending as written in the novel would have required quite a lot of time and a considerable amount of voiceover. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton strikes upon an elegant solution that keeps the heartrending nature of the ending intact, even if it ultimately slightly weaker than the original.

It's just a shame that this scene is undermined by a final scene which, in my opinion, was totally unnecessary. The monologue delievered by an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) is beautiful, and the addition of a final coda makes the ending far more heavyhanded than is strictly necessary. If the film has any weakness it is that at crucial moments it lacks subtlety. Things which in the novel are only hinted at and revealed later, or not at all, are displayed far too obviously. These moments don't ruin the film, but they do stand out for being the only real flaws on display.A really quite stunning film which, apart from a few minor quibbles, is nigh on perfect and a truly breathtaking adaptation of a wonderful novel.