"Atonement," Ian McEwan's acclaimed 2001 novel, is a gripping story that is both brainy and shot through with complicated emotions.
The movie version feels like a stately, but watered down, episode of "Masterpiece Theatre" fused with "The English Patient."
Those who loved the tragic tale of an imaginative adolescent whose actions lead to the unraveling of a family may be disappointed by the film's over-simplifications. Despite some strong performances, it seems a defanged version of the dark novel. Where McEwan's book is filled with descriptive passages and layers of subtext, the movie is more straightforward. It starts out powerfully but falters halfway through when it turns into a World War II drama.
On a lazy summer day in 1935, young Briony (Saoirse Ronan) spies on her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper's son Robbie (James McAvoy) and jumps to all the wrong conclusions. A crime occurs, and Robbie is wrongly accused and sent off to prison, thanks to Briony's wild-eyed suppositions.
This story of love, lust, war and class conflict plays out over a few decades, and Briony is played by three actresses (Romola Garai plays her twentysomething version and Vanessa Redgrave is the elderly incarnation). She spends most of her life trying to atone for a hasty accusation that led to the disintegration of her family. Though she throws herself into nursing in an act of self-abnegation during the war, mostly Briony tries to expiate her sin through her writing. The movie begins and ends with a written work, and the sound of typewriter keys provides the well-chosen background for much of the action.
McEwan's narrative is dense and descriptive, and the film, directed by Joe Wright (2005's Pride & Prejudice), glosses over some of that weightiness. Still, the events leading up to Briony's shattering testimony play out nicely. The summer day is slow and sultry. Annoying cousins are visiting, as is an even more obnoxious college friend, a chocolate tycoon (Benedict Cumberbatch).
But the middle of the film shifts gears and grows dull as we follow Robbie trudging through war-torn battlefields. Too much time is spent focusing on the faces of anonymous soldiers, despite the noteworthy tracking shot (51/2 minutes of uninterrupted camera panning) as Robbie and two fellow soldiers search for a place to rest. The shot highlights Robbie's disorientation, but what goes before and comes after is tedious.
It's a huge challenge to adapt a complex novel based on subtle concepts. Atonement the movie is beautifully photographed, and McAvoy and Knightley are excellent. But a few key scenes, though visually polished, feel inert. The arc and resolution don't feel nearly as absorbing and devastating as McEwan's masterful novel.