Although it’s been on my bookshelves for some time, I haven’t yet read the original Ian McEwan novel of Atonement. However, I found Atonement the movie to be spellbinding, even if I can understand why critics would object. The literary origins are retained through the artifice of a structure essential to conceal the twist in the plot.
The downside is that the film is somewhat stagey and stylised, though the author conceals shocks brilliantly. You are somehow aware of the artifice throughout, the reasons for which become apparent in the twist in the denouement. That said, it never looks anything less than totally glorious, even in the horror of the war scenes – truly a masterpiece of cinematography and production design.
The country house scenes look very chocolate box, and could easily have been the start of a familiar romantic drama of the Camomile Lawn ilk, but all is thrown into disarray in rapid succession by the use of a taboo word, an act of witnessed passion, the violent rape of a young girl and a false accusation.
What follows is the unfolding drama and the story of the atonement, told in several chapters and centred around the character Briony at three ages – 13, 18 and 77, but all with the same haircut. To give each credit, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave each give a sparkling turn and look precisely like an older version of their younger selves. Ronan in particular makes a magical job of competing for screen time with the likes of McAvoy, Knightley, Cumberbatch, Kennedy and Walter – and frankly, wins hands down most of the time!
The finest but by no means the only set piece is however Dunkirk. There is a single, intricate shot weaving in and out of the huge and complex array of activity on the beach as McAvoy’s Robbie and his two companions try to find their way around. This is masterly film-making and worth the price of the DVD on its own. Apparently it was filmed at Redcar, but the intricacy of the planning behind it was so skilfully effected that you could easily have been on that beach awaiting repatriation back to the UK.
The denouement is left in the hands of Vanessa Redgrave, and what a smashing job she makes of it too. Fragile yet playful, wistful yet leaving no doubt of the sincerity of her regrets, this is a fine performance.
McEwan seems blissfully happy with the translation of his novel, and why not? It seems from what people say to have stuck closely to the script in the capable hands of Christopher Hampton. The story is opened out but remains very true to its historical mores and morality. If anything, this makes it even more claustrophobic. Perhaps Hampton could have listened less to McEwan and followed more closely his own instincts to create a vivid big screen vision of McEwan’s novel, it could have achieved the golden 5 stars, but even so – pretty darned good!