It's become fashionable in recent years to refer to the "unfilmable novel," and never more so than when promoting the film of one. Ian McEwan's novel Atonement hardly qualifies as an unfilmable novel—if there even is such a thing—but it does present significant challenges, met with varying success by Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright. Primarily, Atonement is three stories in one: a head-spinning first-act tragedy of circumstance (complete with inappropriate love triangle), a second-act "war movie," and a third-act "memory play" to reframe all that's come before.
It's that first-act that is most fully realized, with working-class Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) unfortunately victimized by Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a thirteen-year-old girl jealous of his relationship with her sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Apart from crisply establishing the characters, Wright adopts a visual language of poetic sensitivity to sensual detail. The action takes place at the well-appointed, well-manicured Tallis estate on the day of a dinner party, coincidentally the hottest day of the year. But not everyone is inclined to do the right thing. Though the fateful night will find Robbie and Cecilia confessing love (and lust) for each other, it will also find Robbie hauled off to jail for a crime he didn't commit.
Wright takes the most time with this first act, and it pays off in penetrating character studies. Robbie, caretaker and son of the Tallis housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn), possesses a native intelligence and a fine education thanks to the patronage of the Tallises. But he's also smart enough to recognize he's a tentative guest in the main house and a perhaps unwelcome suitor for the hand of his till-now chum Cecilia. Cecilia, meanwhile, is too locked into her class to admit to herself what (or whom) she really wants until fate plays a hand. Unfortunately, fate also allows the gifted but frustrated intelligence of her smitten younger sister to turn on Robbie after a series of misinterpreted events.
The characters enter a new phase along with their country and the onset of World War II. The girls are burying their grief in nurse's sackcloth (Briony, 18, now played by Romola Garai), while the ashen Robbie, presented with a limited option, chooses to fight for his country on the French front. Though Wright milks it for its visual value (more on that anon), this war-is-hell scenario has less to do with the war itself and more to do with the character's isolation and torture, fed by slim hopes of setting right lives that so recently seemed to promise all the world had to offer. But Wright increasingly seems more enamored of the art direction than the character's inner lives, and the situations become more familiar, more ordinary (such as Briony's predictable bedside visit with a dying soldier).
Wright compensates with a four-and-a-half minute Steadicam shot that follows Robbie as he trudges around a corrupted beachside, the ferris wheel still mockingly spinning, the ruined gazebo housing an ironic soldier's choir, a beached boat waving tattered sails. Though impressive, the stunt is liable to pull one out of the film to admire the filmmaking, a problem the gripping first act avoids. For the film's third Briony, the compact third act trots out Vanessa Redgrave, a special effect in herself. Redgrave's role is limited to an interview (in a cheeky choice, the questioner is played by Anthony Minghella, director of the "unfilmable" The English Patient). Redgrave swiftly embodies the character's regret and haunting memory on her way to dropping the story's final bomb.
Despite its imperfections, Atonement is a satisfying, sensible adaptation that holds the audience in its sway for two hours. The acting is fine, Dario Marianelli's score devilishly clever in incorporating a clacking typewriter as percussion, and the visual poetry lush in offering a worthy tonal take on the novel. And in the story's nooks and crannies are ideas to savor: the needless, dangerous social constructs that repress people and primal passion, and the human-condition horrors of unpassable distances of space, time, and reconciliation.
[For Groucho's interview with James McAvoy, click here.]