AN ADAPTATION OF IAN MCEWAN’S NOVEL
by Kevin Bowen
published December 10, 2007
now playing in movie theaters
I hate the ending of Atonement.
Let me repeat that. I hate the ending of Atonement.
Probably not for the reason that you might hate it. I picture a whole theater’s worth of average moviegoers agog – some with
delight, some with terror. Personally, I have no problem with its unorthodox nature. I prefer to be original in my cinematic
The atonement, shortly put, isn’t one. After all, an atonement is supposed to be a selfless act of contrition. Letting yourself
off the hook isn’t selfless. It’s quite the opposite. And the act comes from a character who, even years down the road, never quite grasps
that it isn’t all about her.
The ending descends into a writer’s occupational hazard – the flabby self-regard for the redemptive power of words. As if writing
about something amounts to an adequate apology for doing it. If that’s what artists need to get out of bed in the morning, great. But
please don’t expect me to automatically buy it. And please don’t send in the string section to kneecap me if I don’t.
Of course, prettying things up is kind of what this movie does. Director Joe Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey
over-flavor the magic-hour compositions of an English estate and the French countryside. Even the mud at
Dunkirk Beach looks beautiful; one imagines a million interns pouring water into the sand until the gray shade fit the vision. Wright’s ecstatic
glow rightly illuminated Pride and Prejudice, decked as it was in swoony romantic ardor. But here, it seems as if the film is deeply
afraid of getting its hands too dirty.
Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there is room for ambiguity in the finale. Perhaps the beauty of the scenery equates to the
emotional sweetening of a memory, of psychological beautification, of a person straining to tell a story as a desperate stab at
unachievable peace. Perhaps I get what the violin boys do not.
If so, that would fit perfectly with this post-modern story of multiple perspectives, adapted from the 2002 Ian McEwan novel.
Mistaken impressions shape the understanding of reality. The power of storytelling plays on minds. At its center is the way a
fanciful 13-year-old girl and her fragile grasp on adult reality ruin the lives of two she loves.
The girl is Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious child with mustard-colored hair and a mayonnaise-thick imagination, living
with her family on a brilliant English estate in 1935. She has just finished typing up her first naive play, one that she treats with the
seriousness of Ibsen. Out a window she will observe something she doesn’t understand, an exchange between her sister Cecilia (Keira
Knightley) and the housekeeper’s handsome son Robbie (James McAvoy).
There’s an unrealized sexual potential between them, one that’s hidden from the young girl’s comprehension, drunk as it is with
adolescent melodrama. Small details will lead Briony to conclude Robbie is a rapacious sex fiend. By the end of the night – with an
assist from the year’s epidemic of conveniently inept cinematic police work – she wrongly will finger him for a crime.
As war approaches, Robbie will join the army to gain release from prison, wander lost and scared through the French countryside,
and drag his thirsting body onto a Heavenly. Hellish vision of Dunkirk. There, in a single shot as memorable as it is overblown, the
English desperately shoot their horses, play on an abandoned pommel horse and drift above the surface on a looming Ferris wheel. Knightley
will choose love over family, and become a penniless wartime nurse in London, waiting for the return of her love. A grown Briony (Romola
Garai) realizes her mistake and, also coming to London to nurse war-thrashed soldiers, seeks some method of forgiveness.
There is a sly foreboding to the acting, a sense of something lying underneath Knightley’s posh coolness, Ronan’s flighty
intelligence, McAvoy’s casual charm that evolves with fate and war. For McAvoy and Knightley, the film’s able romantic tinge holds the
potential of legitimate box office stardom. In a year of fine films with scant epic romantic sweep, this film sticks out, making it an
Yet the real conflict in the movie is not a war from sixty years ago, nor the struggles of torn lovers, nor a guilt-racked soul.
It’s a battle between being a classic Hollywood star-crossed weepy and the edgy post-modern novel from which it extends. Even if
it does pretty well with the elements individually, it still creates a movie that splits the difference, which is its unpardonable
kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com