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.
The movie, like the novel, begins in 1935 on an English country estate as rich young Briony Tallis types the end of her first major work, a melodrama about a reckless heroine, an evil count, a near-fatal illness, and a handsome prince. But McEwan pulls you into her adolescent fantasy world, while the director, Joe Wright, scants it. He puts more weight on the typewriter keys that hit the paper like anvils—an idea picked up by the film’s composer, Dario Marianelli, who weaves those clacks into his otherwise romantic score. It’s a clever way of goosing you out of the story, but those keys don’t strike very deeply. Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton are keen social satirists who tend to keep their characters at a wry distance, so the shifts in perspective play like artsy syntactical hiccups. From the window of the country estate, Briony spies her older sister, Cecilia (Knightley), disrobing in front of a fountain before Robbie (McAvoy), the son of the family’s housekeeper. A short time later, the scene is replayed from Cecilia’s and Robbie’s point of view—and we’re meant to marvel at the gap between what Briony thinks she saw (and which festers in her adolescent brain) and what actually happened. But in spite of Ronan’s breathless affect, Briony’s perspective never takes hold; her inner world has no weight. And since she’s the one whose actions are the heart of the film (and the source of the title), Atonement never gets much beyond the melodramatic plight of its unjustly besieged lovers.
In his last film, Pride and Prejudice (also with Knightley), Wright aimed to unearth the vein of social realism in Jane Austen—to play down the Masterpiece Theatre element and play up the grime and the hurly-burly. He must have been champing at the bit for the more epic scale of Atonement. So in the center section of the film, the disgraced, war-weary Robbie wanders around the beach at Dunkirk in the scary hours before the British begin their legendary evacuation. In one long shot, the camera holds on Robbie as he trudges past soldiers who shoot their horses (so the Nazis won’t get them), sundry bonfires, a man working out on a pommel horse, and a corpse. Then the camera leaves him and picks its way among other bedraggled soldiers, lingers for a bit with a choir in a gazebo, finds Robbie again atop a hill, and pulls back to show the whole beach littered with men and debris and even a distant Ferris wheel. It probably took days to rehearse and was celebrated with crates of beer and lots of backslapping, but it has nothing to do with what the movie’s about. It stops a show that needed to keep going.
Atonement will certainly make McAvoy, who was inevitably overshadowed by Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, a star in his own right. He’s already an Internet heartthrob, but he’s about to make millions of teenage girls and teenage-girls-at-heart bawl almost as hard as they did when a certain ocean liner went down. What a part: working-class but educated and ambitious, stalwart but unjustly accused. He types the C-word—not as an insult but in the throes of longing—and still seems to radiate purity. As he walks from his mother’s house to the family manse, the natural world seems parched and malignant, a place of serpents ready to swallow up this slender, beautiful, working-class boy.
The grim coda of Atonement doesn’t shatter you, though, and force you to think back over everything you’ve seen. It 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.