Atonement opens in 1935, at a stately manor in the English countryside. (Have I just explained in a dozen words why it will be nominated for Best Picture? Perhaps I have.) A thirteen-year-old girl is finishing a play on her typewriter, the typebars banging a martial beat on the white paper. The rat-a-tat-tatting continues, integrating itself into the soundtrack, even as she gets up with her completed draft and marches away. It’s a device that recurs throughout the film, effectively (though with decreasing subtlety) linking writing and soldiering, love and war--the two subjects and, to a considerable degree, two halves of the film.
The girl is Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), and she is a child of vivid intelligence and awkward fervors who enjoys trafficking in adult words such as “voluminous” and “evanesce.” She also harbors a schoolgirl passion for Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a housekeeper’s son whom Briony’s father put through Cambridge and who has since hung around the Tallis estate performing odd bits of labor. Robbie’s passions, alas, are directed toward the elder Tallis sister, 23-year-old Cecilia (Keira Knightley). One afternoon, Briony watches from a high window in quiet agony as the two talk next to a deep fountain and Cecilia abruptly strips to her slip and plunges in, to emerge dripping moments later, a barely veiled Venus. We later learn she was fetching a bit of broken vase from the fountain bottom, but Briony’s fertile imagination is left to its own conclusions.
Invited to dinner at the manor that night, Robbie composes two letters to Cecilia: One is earnestly amorous and laboriously composed; the other is obscene and anatomical (more typebars punching a virgin page), a private joke to himself. The wrong letter, of course, is entrusted to Briony to deliver and she, of course, reads it before doing so. When she shows it to a young cousin, they concur: “He’s a sex maniac.” This appraisal seems powerfully confirmed when, that evening, Briony discovers Robbie and Cecilia carnally entangled in the library, his smutty missive having served as an unlikely icebreaker. Shock, jealousy, and anger commingle in her adolescent mind and when, later that night, a real sexual assault seems to take place, Briony accuses Robbie with a certainty that may even seem real to her. It is for this ruinous act that she will spend a lifetime trying to atone.
The latter half of the film takes place five years later, in 1940. Robbie, having served three years in prison, took the state’s subsequent offer of release in exchange for Army service, and is now wounded and adrift in the battered French countryside, trying to make his way to the Dunkirk troop evacuation. Cecilia and Briony (now 18 and played by Romola Garai) are estranged from one another but both have become nurses, caring for the broken soldiers shipped back from the war. All three attempt to find solace in the written word: Robbie and Cecilia in letters of deferred love and patient hope sent across the Channel; Briony in a book draft, tapped out secretly at night, about “a young and foolish girl who sees something from her window that she doesn’t understand.” Will Robbie ever return to Cecilia’s embrace? Will Briony find redemption? Atonement takes its time in offering answers, and when it finally does, not all of them are true.
As faithfully adapted by director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton from Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel, Atonement is a film out of balance, nimble enough in its first half but oddly scattered and ungainly once it leaves the grounds of the Tallis estate. In part this is thanks to the structure inherited from the novel: After its first leisurely, linear hour, the film becomes more episodic, jumping from France to England, present to past. But even within this perhaps unavoidable format, the film’s rhythms are irregular. Robbie’s perilous pilgrimage to Dunkirk seems rushed and underdeveloped, as if the filmmakers felt they were running out of time. Yet when he arrives at the coastal troop evacuation, the movie grinds to a halt, as the camera lingeringly casts its eye up and down the shore--at the lonely Ferris wheel bookmarked by two plumes of smoke; at the endless expanse of bedraggled evacuees; at the soldiers shooting horses to deny them to the Germans. It’s a beautiful scene, but one so static and overlong that it seems to fetishize set design. (A similar imbalance later occurs at the hospital where Briony works, with context and character again taking a back seat to an extended visual inventory of wounded soldiers.)
A more narrow but still vexing problem is the shift between actresses playing Briony. Could it really be so difficult to find a single performer able to play the girl at both 13 and 18? And even if so, could Wright not at least have found two actresses with features more similar than Irish pixie Ronan and the Hungarian-inflected Garai? (Had the film gone on any longer we’d have needed additional portrayals by Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, and Richard Gere.) The situation is worsened by the fact that Briony’s temperament, too, has undergone a conversion, from precocious troublemaker to repentant sinner, leaving us with little to connect the former to the latter beyond the name and the bob haircut.
This would be less disconcerting if Briony did not emerge as the closest thing to a central character in the film’s latter part, with Robbie ill and exhausted and Cecilia largely absent altogether. For considerable stretches, Briony’s repentance is the primary narrative and emotional thread, yet I could scarcely keep from wondering, who is she again? And why does she feel so guilty about what that other girl did?
In the end, Atonement is a workmanlike yet vaguely disappointing adaptation of a masterful novel. Knightley’s performance is strong, though apart from one heartbreaking scene before Robbie leaves for France--“Come back to me. Come back to me. Come back,” she tells him: a mantra, a prayer, a plea--she isn’t asked to do a great deal beyond set her jaw and flash her eyes. McAvoy is likable and magnetic, showing that he can shine when out of the shadow of Aslan and Idi Amin. And, while I’m still not quite sure what to make of Garai’s Briony, Ronan’s younger version is a marvel, elegantly capturing the narcissism and self-doubt that adhere to precocity.
What’s missing is McEwan’s prose and ingenuity, which Wright’s literalism cannot convey. He transcribes the novel to the screen faithfully, but without ever finding a cinematic language--no, the typewriter clacks don’t count--that could make it more than a second-hand work of art, a filmed book. Nowhere is this clearer than at the end, where the filmmakers are faced with the challenge of adapting the novel’s gimmicky yet piercing conclusion. McEwan’s literary sleight of hand takes the form of an elderly Briony’s internal meditation on truth and invention, fidelity and betrayal, the value and the costs of memory.
How do Wright and Hampton transfer these reflections to the big screen? By placing them on the little screen, with Briony (now Vanessa Redgrave) speaking her piece on a TV talk show. It’s an alteration that radically, if unwittingly, undermines McEwan’s ending: Someone who wishes her fictions to usurp lived history would hardly go on television to tell everyone it was all a big fib. But such are the compromises one must sometimes make on the way to the multiplex. Indeed, the filmmakers seem almost to confess as much with a new line inserted into Briony’s final monologue, an admission of literary defeat that could as easily be theirs as hers: “I just couldn’t find a way to do it.”