All entries for Saturday 25 August 2007

August 25, 2007

Review: Atonement (film)

Ian McEwan has – since about the mid-nineties at least – had a knack of writing books that are better than 99.9% of everything else that gets published.

The Child in Time gets a rough ride from critics, but I think it’s fantastic. Saturday was below his usual standard but still a scintillating read. On Chesil Beach took a simple plot and strung it out without making it prolonged. Amsterdam won the Booker prize, and you can’t do much better than that. And while Atonement didn’t win the Booker Prize, the majority seem to think it’s better than his book that did. And they’d be right.

Atonement is a three-part novel (plus epilogue) stretching from the 1930s to 1999. Each era depicts a very different time. The first section, set in 1937, is a lavish, dark setting where crimes take place underneath people’s noses. But it is the wrong crime which is reported. The second section is fought on the beaches of Northern France and the hospitals of London in the early 1940s. And the final section is set in the present day.

What makes the novel so powerful is that each section is better than the previous one, even though all are brilliant. McEwan gives you no preparation for where the story will lead next, and delivers a painful sting-in-the-tail at the end of the final act.

Asked what the story is about, you’d have to think for 30 seconds and then probably settle on “atonement”. It’s an apt title, you see.

Sadly the producers of the film version (out next month) have only read up to the third section and only included the important epilogue as an afterthought.

The film’s tagline, “Joined by love. Separated by fear. Redeemed by hope.” rather gives it away.

This is probably to be expected from Working Title, who have brought us Four Weddings…, Notting Hill, Wimbledon and Joe Wright’s directorial debut, Pride and Prejudice. But it’s wrong. The film is lavish, looks great, and has some good set pieces lifted straight from the page. But it completely confuses who the main character is.

The film is Cecilia and Robbie’s story told through Briony’s eyes. The book is Briony’s story told through Briony’s eyes.

Keira Knightley is very good as Cecilia. She’s the least annoying she’s ever been on film – although the trailer had me worried. But she steals the show from Briony’s character, who while played brilliantly by three different actresses, isn’t on screen enough.

And if they were going to insist on focusing on Cecilia and Robbie, they should at least have made Robbie (James McAvoy) less understated. Compared with his brilliant performance in The Last King of Scotland, McAvoy seemed half-asleep during the film. I imagined Robbie as younger, angrier and more naïve.

The scene on the beach is brilliant, and the three minute-long sweeping shot is just what the story deserved. And to be fair, it’s not a bad film at all. But I wonder if, with the same director, lead actress and a romantic theme with the atonement left as an after-thought, this film is more Pride and Prejudice 2 rather Atonement.

Atonement is released in cinemas on September 7th


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