Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face? Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated.
-- Ian McEwan, Atonement
Sunday evening, three days before it was released on DVD, I finally caught up with Atonement, which opened at our second-run theater, the Apollo, last Friday. I'm glad I saw it on the big screen, and in the cavernous old single-theater space that the Apollo (built in the 1930s) houses: it benefits from that sense of old-fashioned prestige, that big screen and the theater's cushy chairs, and there's something nice about being enveloped by the action and emotion on the screen.
Architecture is central to Atonement's meaning, in visual, generic and critical terms. The film opens in an English country home in 1935, and quickly takes us through its rooms and hallways, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's flowing camera merging with Dario Marianelli's innovative, score to fully thrust us into the workings and class structures that define this world: as young Briony Tallis dashes down the hall to announce her new play, the percussion blends with work noise and the non-diegetic tap of a typewriter in a manner reminiscent of the work rhythms at the start of Love Me Tonight : space, work and music are one. The elaborate set design, the costuming and the period setting all suggest a stuffy tale of repression out of Merchant-Ivory, and indeed, that's how it was surprisingly received by a number of critics, who dismissed it as an outdated relic in their rush to fete P.T. Anderson and the Coens (for many critics, this was clearly the year of the macho hipster, and in awards terms, apparent 'chick movies' need not have applied). But anyone who read the breathtaking source novel by Ian McEwan knew that-- if the adaptation was any good-- something much stranger, richer and more complex was being done to those generic trappings, that the architecture of the country estate was about to be turned inside out.
As a novel, Atonement's architecture was less narrative than stylistic: I was honestly surprised when I heard they were making a movie, since I couldn't imagine how they'd translate McEwan's writerly voice to the screen. And that voice was the whole point: the trappings may have looked like Wodehouse, but the perspective McEwan took was almost cubist: fractured in its vision; fluid and multiple in its perspectives; both objective and deeply subjective; and non-chronological in its temporality (it constantly doubles back on itself). It's the country home novel as seen through a modernist prism, the insistent hum of McEwan's voice acting as a stylistic foreshadowing of how the 20th century is about to gobble up its characters' lives (it becomes, simultaneously, an act of formalist bravado, and a deeply sensual and affecting tale of human loss). It's a very cinematic way of working-- one can almost see the flashbacks, the tracking shots, the montages as McEwan's sentences unwind-- but my fear was that absent that style, it would revert to something more archaic.
I needn't have worried: screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright might not be McEwan, but they are surprisingly faithful to the book's form and approach. In some ways, their kino-eye is even more ruthless than McEwan's-- absent the interiority he offered his characters, we can observe their first half downfalls in an almost clinical way. The flashbacks and repetitions are still there, and they are enhanced by the sensuality of their actors, the way the camera uses their faces as windows and mirrors into the narrative. Keira Knightley is all grown up: I've enjoyed her as an actress since Bend It Like Beckham, but there was always something youthful and coquettish about her, a feeling that she was a girl in dress-up clothes. But here, she is an adult, hitting darker and richer notes in her character, and deploying her movie star beauty in a much more rawly physical way; we believe Cecilia's lust and desire because Knightley presents it to us forthrightly, and without affect. It helps that she is paired with James McAvoy, whose offkilter movement from playful charmer to haunted victim keeps his Robbie Turner from being too sentimental, and by Saorise Ronan, whose young Briony so eerily suggests both longing and malice (and how intertwined those two emotions can be for adolescents). Like many of the year's best films, Atonement is a mystery, but a whydunnit rather than a who: we know what happens, but the motives often feel buried, merely hinted at (and then, in an often untrustworthy way). Hampton was a smart choice for the adaptation: as the writer of Dangerous Liaisons, he's well-versed in finding the sex, wit, and malicious power under stuffy social surfaces, and also in suggesting the human cost of childish games.
About 2/3 of the way through the film, there is a bravura set-piece: a crane shot down, around, and back up a French beach full of displaced soldiers waiting for the ships that might take them home. It lasts several minutes, takes us through several spaces, and tries to give a thorough sense of the pain and deprivation the men are suffering. It is the closest the film gets to sometimes stream-of-consciouness mode McEwan uses-- that desire to take in and process everything at once, and the anxiety that with every turning glance or thought, you are only adding to your perceptual confusion. It's an impressive moment, but its choreography-- while no more (or less) planned than McEwan's, no more (or less) a magician's trick-- creates a different sensation. While reading Atonement, you can get a sensual rush from the language while still being hurtled through the narrative: there's a prickly pas de deux between genre and voice. As the camera took me across the beach in the film, instead of being absorbed in the emotions, I kept thinking, "Wow, this is a really impressive crane shot."
And it is, and in its own way, it's very affecting, but that different response also suggests the difficult task the filmmakers have set for themselves in attempting the translation. The end result is a worthy and moving one, but one doomed to a certain kind of failure: in showing rather than telling, this crane shot flattens our response, becomes an emblem of an earlier form of literary modernism's revenge on a later, visual modernism (there's a clever attempt to translate the final twist of McEwan's book into cinematic terms, but it lacks the shock of the novel, that "holy cow"whoosh! that McEwan's almost rack-focus-like shift in perspective provided). In a movie that's all about the dangers of certainty, the tenuous relationship between seeing and reading, and the terrible results of a lack of imaginative empathy (Renoir: "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons"), such concerns about the "faithfulness" of an interpretation offer another layer of irony: we long to be Cecilia or Robbie, but we know, as voyeurs, that we are an audience of Brionys. And it's all so unbearably complicated.