It’s been a couple of days now since I watched Joe Wright’s cinematic adaptation of British novelist Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel “Atonement. Unable to extract myself from this state of mental and emotional paralysis, I decided to put my thoughts on paper.
For a while, the words refused to flow. Are there enough words out there to describe the powerfulness of “Atonement? Is there any way to discuss the film without plunging into the emotional abyss à la my Bergman obituary?
I’m not sure there is, and this is probably not the most objective review you’ll read about the movie.
I’ve been a fan of McEwan’s works ever since I accidentally stumbled upon his novel “Amsterdam seven years ago. It’s difficult to pigeonhole his works into a particular category or define them using specific themes.
McEwan has proved through his 10 major books – the first of which was 1978 s “The Cement Garden – to be not only one of the most eclectic and rebellious novelist of our time, but also one of the few true greats.
I wasn’t caught up in the hype surrounding “Atonement, the book everyone was reading in 2001. The novel was one of the most celebrated literary works of this decade. Besides being short-listed for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction, it has won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, among other awards.
Time magazine and The Observer cited it as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time.
Late last year I finally bought a copy of the novel and began reading it slowly. By the end of part one, I was too hooked to put it down.
I tried to conceal the distress the novel inflicted on me, attempting even to find other reasons that might justify my overreaction.
As I tread hesitantly into Wright’s film, I was curious to see how the characters and events of the story would unfold on screen.
A myriad of forbearing impressions roamed in defiance in my head. Here was Keira Knightley playing Cecilia, James McAvoy is a bit short to play Robbie, Emily isn’t supposed to be that old.
Ten minutes in, and as the famous fountain scene played on screen, I was forced to let go and relive the entire story as if hearing it for the first time.
The first part of the story is set in the summer of 1935 in a lavish English country house. It opens in a medium-sized, spotless room where a miniature of a big mansion lies on the floor behind a group of small animal toys, clustered carefully in a semi-Darwinian fashion.
The room belongs to Briony (Saoirse Ronan), the youngest member of the upper-class Tallis family. Briony is a 13-year-old aspiring writer who categorizes everything she sees in black and white. She is a control freak whose plans to stage her play “The Trials of Arbabella are soon crushed by the lack of discipline of her little reckless visiting cousins.
Her sister Cecilia, on the other hand, is a free-spirited, posh young woman entrapped in the boredom of her characterless family household. It’s quite clear there’s an attraction between her and Robbie, the dashing, ambitious housekeeper’s son who’s set to study medicine after Cecilia’s generous father agrees to sponsor his education.
Both have been close childhood friends, but eventually grew apart when the pair went to study at Cambridge. Briony asks her sister why she doesn’t talk to Robbie any longer. “I do, she replies. “We just move in different circles, that’s all.
In two separate incidents, Briony misinterprets a couple of encounters between Cecilia and Robbie. Both incidents, along with a letter Robbie sends to her sister, prompt her to commit a major crime that would destroy three different lives, including her own.
“Atonement is, to a great extent, a film about the curse of subjective perception, the inability of humans to understand one another. No advanced psychology, technology or thousands of years of civilization could hide the one palpable truth: Humans remain ignorant, judgmental creatures, constantly inflicting pain upon one another.
Briony’s crime is primarily caused by her inability to fully comprehend something she may, or may not, have seen.
The first half of the movie explores the agony and torment Robbie and Cecilia go through in attempting, and failing, to decipher each other s every action, passing glance, and gesture.
The book is more successful in delving deep into this particular facet. In the film version, the key to understanding the three protagonists lie in what they don’t say, and not what they consciously utter.
Unlike his exceptional first feature “Pride and Prejudice, Wright cloaks his new film with an ethereal, dreamlike veil that completely suspends reality despite the realistic backdrop of WW2.
Even the harrowing British evacuation scene from the Dunkirk beach in 1940 is crammed with hazy, surreal images that include abandoned cannons; drunken, lost soldiers in search of shelter; horses being shot; and a military choir chanting a tune about the beauty of peace. All these images are seen through one jaw-dropping five-minute tracking shot that ranks among the greatest, and longest, in history.
McAvoy’s performance carries the emotional weight of the film. Robbie is a man who once possessed all the keys for a prosperous, happy future that should’ve transcended him beyond his humble background, and the “Last King of Scotland star doesn’t shy away from disclosing the effects of his character’s staggering loss.
Knightley’s character, on the other hand, appears brittle and slightly snobbish at first. Halfway through the film, when she receives the wrong letter from Robbie, she drops all her guises, and the upshot is quite astonishing. The vulnerability she gradually exposes has rarely been witnessed in the previous characters she played. I have fallen madly in love with her.
Ian Bailie’s art direction, Seamus McGarvey’s vibrant cinematography that veers from the optimistic natural lighting of the English countryside to the bleak ambiance of the war, and Dario Marianelli’s breathtakingly sad score are all major assets in the film. None of these elements though could explain its devastating effect.
“Pride and Prejudice was a story about two characters that represent a better version of who we are. “Atonement is a film about two flawed lovers, no different than us.
Robbie and Cecilia deserve each other and perhaps in their failure to obtain this happiness, we recognize how our vision of this innocent, pure bliss has been distorted and extensively compromised through the years.
The concept of storytelling, and the omniscient role of the storyteller is the true heart of both the film and the novel. This theme is unveiled with the final ironic twist of the third act, but, and with multiple views, it becomes clear that Wright employs it in a way that goes beyond the last 15 minutes of the film.
Reality seemed too plain and inconsequential after watching the film. The love, pain and tears of McEwan’s world are too gripping and deeply haunting to be easily forgotten.
I stayed put in my seat at the movie theater for 0 minutes after the credits finished rolling, still chained by McEwan’s story. On the way back home, I closed my eyes and started playing the film in my head, an experience I haven’t managed to replicate since my regular long rides to school 15 years ago.
Very few films have had the same heartbreaking effect “Atonement left on me. It’s not a perfect picture and in terms of ambition and scope, “No Country for Old Men and “There Will Be Blood are, arguably, superior.
Still, the viewer is never the one who chooses their favorite films, it’s the other way round.