When the Oscar nominations were announced last week, I was a bit surprised to hear that the film adaptation of Atonement had earned a nod for Best Picture. In some ways, the beauty of the novel rests on its use of language, its psychological depth, and a rather odd structure, which Ian McEwan somehow manages to pull off. The first third of the book takes places over the course of one day and is told from the points of view of several characters: the young, impressionable Briony Tallis, who wants to be a writer; her older sister Cecilia, who just returned from Cambridge; their inept mother, Emily; the teenage Lola, a house guest who is raped that evening; and Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallises’ charlady, who also just returned from Cambridge with a ‘first-class degree,’ and stands accused of the crime. The second part of the book is set during the Second World War, in which Robbie serves. Through flashbacks, we find out what happened to him, and learn more about his romantic relationship with Cecilia, and his fight to clear his name. The third part of the book is told through Briony’s point of view. She is now training to be a nurse, and works at a London hospital where a huge number of wounded soldiers are sent. There is also an epilogue, written in 1999 by a now elderly Briony.
In Joe Wright‘s adaptation, the first third of the book is rendered beautifully and the shifting points of view work well on screen, but the entire project falls apart as soon as Robbie is whisked off to jail. The war scenes inevitably recall in the spectator’s mind the work of Steven Spielberg–and the comparison is not to Wright’s advantage. Where the book is subtle (in France, Robbie sees a single human leg hanging from a tree), the adaptation hits you over the head (a whole group of Catholic school girls dead under a tree.) The parts that are set in the hospital feel bogged down and irrelevant. Saoirse Ronan (who plays Briony as a child) and Vanessa Redgrave (who plays an old Briony) manage to rescue the scenes in which they appear, and the cinematography is certainly breathtaking, but I thought Atonement just didn’t hold together as a film. (In sharp contrast to, say, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men.)
Photo: Atonement film still (link.)