The music produced by an old-fashioned manual typewriter in the hands of a productive author takes on the aural qualities of a ticking time bomb in the score to Atonement. And that very clever, ever-so-slightly overawed literal-mindedness pretty well sums up everything satisfying, as well as less so, about this luxe adaptation of Ian McEwan’s stunning 2002 best-selling novel. Treacheries committed in the name of art and expiation sought are McEwan’s themes at their grandest, but director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) are convinced that what a moviegoer wants from a literary adaptation is refinement and good breeding. Their movie is abundantly attractive, every scene serenely composed, and every character so fair in love and war that, when the lights come up, it’s too easy to say, ”That was good and sad and romantic and classy, now what’s for dinner?” Turning the last page of McEwan’s book, in contrast, you’re more likely to be shaking from direct devastation and intensity of experience. Different mediums, different messages, I guess — except that the book-loving and movie-loving me holds fast to the conviction that the right artistic alchemy can indeed turn a great book into a different but equally great movie.
This isn’t that. So it falls to composer Dario Marianelli to supply the course-correcting clackety bits that shore up the subtext. It makes sense that the clicks and pings embedded in the melodious musical themes arrive haltingly at first — in imitation of a young typist’s mechanical limitations. After all, Briony Tallis (the breathtakingly self-possessed Irish talent Saoirse Ronan, who has porcelain skin and a pitiless blue-eyed stare), a self-serious writer-in-training from a rich, idle English family, is all of 13 years old in 1935 when she creates what she doesn’t yet know will remain the most important fiction of her career.
The drama-prone adolescent observes sexual electricity between her glamorous older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley, she of the smoky eyes and knife-edge shoulder blades), and Robbie (James McAvoy, he of the utilitarian boyish masculinity), the college-educated son of the family housekeeper, on whom Briony, too, has a crush. And drawing on her own girlish fantasies, sexual naïveté, and artist’s dangerous talent for revenge, one night she tells a whopper of a tale accusing Robbie of a crime he didn’t commit, a fiction that nevertheless sends him off to jail for years. Knightley and McAvoy don’t have much chemistry between them, but they do share handsome, planed features, they speak a richly clipped, 1930s-movie-style English-from-England, and they look positively Abercrombie & Fitchalicious together. So watching Cecilia watching Robbie led away by cops, we can approximately feel her pain.
The very opposite of happily-ever-after enchantment, the story Briony tells ruins lives for decades to come — including that of the storyteller. And as it does, Marianelli’s score quickens, increasing the agitated tempo of speed-typing and turning the dingggg that announces a full stop and carriagereturn into a kind of time’s-up accusation. Robbie eventually moves from prison to war — he becomes a lovesick soldier in France, one of thousands on the beach at the British retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, in a world where the killing is real, not a fairy tale. Wright stages a tricky, seamless, five-minute-plus single-shot Steadicam tour across that battle-wrecked beach with a gallantry that aims for terrible-majesty-of-war cinematic ambition but settles for a disconnected Wow, bloody awesome camera work. Cecilia becomes a nurse. And, imitating the sister from whom she’s now estranged, Briony (played in young adulthood by Romola Garai) herself seeks redemptive nursing war work, at one point furiously scrubbing blood from her hands in one of the movie’s less subtle editorial signifiers. (She also continues to write wherever she can, even in a hospital storage closet — because, like any true writer, she can’t not.)
In the end — an ending of such power and narrative originality (in both book and movie) that those who know it ought never breathe a word to those who don’t — Briony is an old woman, her stricken stare taken up by Vanessa Redgrave. As ever, the attention to detail is careful — the way Redgrave’s bearing echoes Garai’s, which echoes Ronan’s. Even the defeated, sexless dress worn by old Briony rewards the viewer for remembering the virginal, sexless frock worn by young Briony. Atonement is cultured and tidy like that. It’s a nice movie where magnificence is in order. B