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


- 4 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. len barron

    Your favourite book is so complex that even the film makers, readers & audiences get things wrong!

    The epigraph is from Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818, but written first in the 1790s as a response to the late C18 Gothic novel), which sets the whole thing up indeed for us to expect a skewed, female, adolescent view of the events. But it is not a first-person, ‘I’ narrative by Briony; rather a third-person, ironic narrator presenting different angles on material. This is more Henry James than Austen perhaps. At this point, we have no reason to think it’s Briony’s tale itself, told by Briony. This is an assertion made at the end of the book/film in the epilogue by a very-fallible narrator indeed, ie Briony herself as a dying old lady. Best read it & infer as McEwan himself, the puppet master!

    The story opens in high summer (June/July/August?) 1935, not 1937. Robbie is arrested & taken away towards dawn following the day of the ‘rape’ etc.

    Robbie is convicted & imprisoned November 1935 (in the book), spends 3 & a half years in Wandsworth prison (‘til Spring 1939?), & is then released into the Army for training at some time before war breaks out (Sept 3 1939). He meets with Cecilia during this time before going off to France, & presumably fights on & off from then until Dunkirk, ie Sept 39- June 40.

    The film says ‘Northern France, 4 years later’ when it cuts to Robbie & his soldier pals in the barn. This is not quite right, as obviously they’re on their way to Dunkirk after the rout of the BEF, & it is May-June 1940, not 1939. ‘6 months earlier’ is then said & shown to be his meeting with Cecilia. Perhaps his time on remand after the ‘rape’ (June-Nov 1935?) is part of his 3 & a half years served sentence?

    Robbie dies on the last day of the Dunkirk ‘miracle’ evacuation, which is said in the film (I think!) to be 1 june 1940. Dunkirk lasted in fact 9 days, ie 27 May-4 June 1940.

    Cecilia dies in October in the film, September 1940 in the book. Surely the bomb which burst the water main which flooded Balham tube fell on a specific night, well documented & unambiguous? Or perhaps the writers are playing with us again?!?

    The book epilogue is 1999, yes, but what of the film? 1999 or 2006/7? This IS academic, really, but I’m not sure about some of the above anomalies!

    29 Sep 2007, 12:01

  2. Anna Spencer

    I agree with most of the previous comments about the film and the review preceding it. However, I found the second section of the film rather a disappointment, after the glitz and glamour of the opening scenes. The suspense was very cleverly sustained in the first part, but for me, fell a little flat after this. I found the middle portion rather ponderous. The final section, I feel, could even have been expanded.

    As for the film’s moral message, I found this rather ambiguous. There was not really any atonement on Briony’s part. The perceived attempt at atonement was revealed to be pure fantasty. Perhaps that is why one talks about the power of the imagination. I have bought the book, just recently, but not yet started to read it. Despite these shortcomings, the acting was brilliant, especially the performance of Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony…outstanding! I really did love this film and would like to see it again (after I have finished the book!)

    22 Dec 2007, 08:22

  3. ed

    keira knightley v good? oh pls. she is so stiff and hardly as nuanced as the younger brioni who is going to do wonders in her years ahead in e profession.

    ps: what a f”£%”^ antispam qn

    29 Dec 2007, 22:22

  4. bcl

    len barron – as to your penultimate point, the balham tube deaths occurred in october, 1940. not sure why the book has that wrong. there is a wikipedia entry on the balham tube station.

    19 Feb 2008, 08:13


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