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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Atonement

Atonement is a frustrating movie that ultimately fails in its daunting task: to render in cinematic terms a story that is not just literary in tone, but in fact is actually about a novel, the novelist, and her intentions. I have not read Ian McEwan’s novel, which is widely considered a modern masterpiece, but after seeing the movie adaptation I spoke to two friends who read and loved it to try to pinpoint some of the differences.

Centrally important is the much-discussed narrative twist near the end of the story. I won’t spoil this surprise, but suffice it to say that it involves the very nature of the story we are watching/reading. Readers of the novel report being overcome by the suddenness and brilliance of this device. Yet in the film, it provides a brief, sad surprise, but not much more. There is no real equivalent for the way the narrator of the novel, a novelist herself and a participant in the story, reveals the true nature of the characters and events she has been describing. And in the film the revelation falls flat, despite being delivered expertly by Vanessa Redgrave.

But the first 45 minutes or so of the film are enthralling. The setting is a country estate shortly before the outbreak of World War II. The words and actions of a young man named Robbie are completely misconstrued by the intensely impressionable young sister of the woman he loves, and this misunderstanding cascades into a tragedy of lovers wrongly separated. The atmosphere, the emotion, the shifting perspective are all expertly and beautifully rendered by director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice), scenarist Christopher Hampton, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Hours, Charlotte’s Web), and especially the actors: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, and Saoirse Ronan (really wonderful as 13-year-old Briony). This section of the film refuses to rush, and it succeeds in establishing the deeply sad love story that is the beating heart of both novel and film.

But after this the film is much less satisfying. Although crammed with incident, it remains emotionally static and unconvincing, even before it reaches that tricky bit of storytelling sleight-of-hand at the end. The recreation of the evacuation at Dunkirk is remarkable, but it throws the film out of balance visually – nothing else is conceived on such a large physical scale. The brilliant beginning has built up hopes in the audience that are nearly impossible to fulfill.

The film’s musical score by Dario Marianelli (who also worked with Joe Wright on Pride and Prejudice) deserves special mention. It captures the intense romantic yearning and tragic regret that infuse the story. The soundtrack album, brilliantly recorded, is very beautifully performed by the English Chamber Orchestra, with outstanding solos by the renowned pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the cellist Caroline Dale. My only objection is to a device that works well in the film but is jarring and distracting for home listening: a typewriter’s loud striking provides percussion in several of the cuts. It’s another attempt to translate a written story about written stories into movie language.

See Atonement for its performances and its beautiful production and its nearly perfect opening section. Be prepared for frustration after that. It’s a good but deeply flawed film.

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