Sunday, February 10, 2008


Ian McEwan’s novel was an astonishing achievement and both its structure and storyline presented difficulties for anyone who wanted to bring it to the screen. Joe Wright (Director) and Christopher Hampton (screenplay) have surmounted these difficulties with aplomb and produced a film which is not only 100% true to the original but which is a moving and creative work of art in its own right. The story is in three distinct parts. The first is about the tensions between two sisters and with a handsome young man - who is suitor to the elder - in an upper-middle class English family in 1935. There is an undercurrent of unease in this story - and when the climax comes it is no surprise. Passions, mendacity, jealousy, snobbery and ultimately violence bubble inexorably to the surface. The second part describes how the grievously hard-done-by young man from the first story gets caught up in the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. This is harrowingly complete and horrifically graphic in its gory detail. The third part shows how the now adult younger sister copes with her guilt in the aftermath of the tragedy of 1935 and also with her determined effort to atone, partly by training as a nurse in a military hospital. A gripping plot, brilliant writing and fine characterisations illuminate this movie – excellent perofmances both by both the principals and the supporting cast.

Atonement is really a three-hander. The elder sister is played with great subtlety and distinction by Keira Knightly – perhaps here finest screen performance to date. Her suitor, Robbie, is brought to life by James McAvoy who is quite outstanding in the war scenes. And the younger sister, Briony, is believably played as a child by Saoirse Ronan, and thoughtfully by Romola Garai as an 18-year-old. There is also a stunning cameo from Vanessa Redgrave as the 77-year-old Briony at the end of the film. The five minutes when Ms Redgrave is on screen is a small master class in acting that all drama students should study carefully!

The cinematography is excellent throughout – especially the recreation of Dunkirk which is done absolutely without an ounce of sentimentality (as it should be). No small boats and brave Brits escaping to freedom here – just blood, sweat and tears. The same applies to the hospital scenes which might not be suitable for those with a weak stomach. But it certainly tells it as it was.

Finally it is worth recoding that a minor subtext of McEwan’s nook is about the art of writing fiction – particularly about the writing of a realistic novel which is closely linked to real-life events. I wondered whether this would be tackled in the film, but it is and it works very well. For those who have seen the film but not read the book I heartily recommend McEwan’s novel to you. They compliment one another well and you are likely to be moved all over again when you turn the pages.
© Paddy Briggs February 2008