Atonement (15)

Directed by Joe Wright, Written by Ian McEwan (novel), Christopher Hampton (screenplay)
On general release from 7th September 2007

Reviewed by Mr Read

One of my iron laws is - the film is never as good as the book. In two to three hours a film can never adequately examine a complex and involved plot. Inevitably scenes, sub-plots and characters are completely excised.

Having said that, in many ways ‘Atonement’ is a great film; the cinematography is excellent, the shots linking different sections are stunning and the use of flashback to view stories from the viewpoint of different characters is highly effective.

Inevitably comparisons have been made with ‘The Go Between’ - a lazy summer in an upper class household just before war, a love affair across the class divide and a messenger accidentally drawn in and subsequently scarred for life by their unwitting involvement.

Robbie (played by James McAvoy) is the housekeeper’s son. As a Cambridge graduate he is bridging the gulf between the classes, yet somehow I didn’t get that sense of brooding tension that an actor from a previous generation like Alan Bates would have given to the role. His affair with Cecilia (Keira Knightley) ignites a tragic sequence of events.

One of the key scenes is when, after a gap of four years, Robbie who is newly enlisted in the army and on his way to France, meets Cecilia in a crowded London café. Brief Encounter it wasn’t - the stiff-upper lip detachment that masked a smouldering passion? It just didn’t happen, the earth didn’t move for me.

The most effective scenes are in Dunkirk. The images engrained on most people’s memories are of the evacuation by the small ships, British soldiers patiently queuing in the sea and then the Pathe newsreel footage, pictures of unshaven Tommies drinking from mugs of tea served by jolly WI types. ‘Jerry hasn’t broken these chaps spirits!’

The reality was of course different; a chaotic retreat, the hell of the beaches, soldiers wandering around trying to find their regiment, horses shot, lorries destroyed, supplies burnt, constant strafing by the Luftwaffe. The BEF rescued more by luck than judgement.

Briony the messenger and architect of Robbie’s disgrace eschews a place at Cambridge and in an attempt at redemption nurses the troops that Pathe missed - the amputees, the burnt and the dying.

The film effectively conveys Ian McEwan’s concluding dramatic twist. Vanessa Redgrave as the older Briony, confronting her mortality, steals the scene with a brilliant under-stated cameo performance, it questions the role of the writer and that grey area between fact and fiction in literature.

A disappointment for me with both film and book is the failure to examine the social and political background to war. In the late 30s there was a strong pacifist mood (enhanced by the memory of the slaughter in the trenches during the ‘Great War’) which was also reflected in the upper classes i.e. the 1933 vote at the Oxford Union not to fight for ‘King or Country’. The ‘Cliveden Set’ went a step beyond; they wanted appeasement with Hitler and supported the ‘war against Bolshevism’.

‘Atonement’ a classy adaptation that didn’t quite make it.

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