(No longer in theaters)
Paul Webster, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Dec 14, 2007
The artists who adapted Ian McEwan’s devastating novel Atonement to the screen have done, by all objective measures, a sterling job of stuffing everything into their movie’s two-hour frame: the major themes; the radical shifts in perspective; and the final, audacious act of narrative rug-pulling that laid me and a lot of other readers out flat, brooding both on the fates of the characters and the fatal ways in which fictions can get tangled up with lies. The film is absorbing and evocative—more fully worked out than many other prestige literary adaptations, like Cold Mountain. It leaves you very sad for James McAvoy and Keira Knightley as the increasingly haggard lovers, and for the fanciful girl (Saoirse Ronan in 1935, Romola Garai on the other side of puberty) who alters their destiny. But it doesn’t achieve what McEwan does—what all adaptations of his books need to do to make the leap to another medium. It doesn’t fuck with your head.
Atonement lacks McEwan’s killer instinct. The author has evolved since the days when Brits dubbed him Ian Macabre, but underneath the magisterial prose and Updike-like mastery of detail is the same misanthropic cunning. His last two books, Saturday and On Chesil Beach, are like Chekhov rewritten by a cool neuroscientist: He wants to diagram—anatomize—the ways in which people become lost in their labyrinthine perspectives, and to give their limitations stinging consequences. Atonement works reasonably well as a tragic romance, but that sting is dulled. As a book, it was a blow to the head; as a movie, it’s an adaptation of a book.