Young Briony (Saoirse Ronan) and her family are living in quiet decadence in the north England countryside at the end of the Gilded Age and with World War II on the horizon (and if there’s a better metaphor for the end of childhood innocence I can’t think of one) with just the barest premonition of the horrible future to come.
An adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed meditation on truth and sin, “Atonement” questions, somewhat bleakly, whether it is possible for the same people that create such deep horrors (be it young heartbreak or genocidal warfare) to ever make up for what they’ve done.
As with all adaptations, there are things gained and lost in Joe Wright’s (“Pride & Prejudice”) translation of the novel. The breadth of the world created on the written page, and all the history and digressions that come with it, have to be severely truncated for the film’s brief running time, in exchange for a living and breathing world that creates nuances a written work cannot. More often than not, the give and take creates something of a mixed bag, but “Adaptation” the film captures enough of its source materials intent to keep up its good name, even if some of the details are lost along the way.
Though the film is probably more about Briony than anyone else, the crux of the matter rests on star-crossed lovers Robbie (James McAvoy) and Cecilia (Keira Knightley), who are separated through the precariousness of perception and relative truth. Unjustly sent to prison, Robbie is able to commute his sentence by enlisting in Britain’s initial foray against Germany to relieve France, while Cecilia and Briony work as nurses back home.
Focused solidly on character and theme, “Atonement’s” strength is also its weakness. It’s dealing with very tricky subject matter, like trying to grasp smoke, and it slips and slides through Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s (“Dangerous Liaisons”) fingers. Is atonement even possible, the film wonders, or is it merely a different perception of reality, a mask to cover up inevitable guilt? These are hard questions, and “Atonement” the film is not always up to fully engaging them.
It’s perfectly solid work throughout, make no mistake, but there is an undeniable sense that the strongest part is at the beginning, followed by a gentle but noticeable decline as the story plays out. Part of this may be due to Ronan’s superb performance as a young girl who thinks she knows what love is, but doesn’t. When Romola Garai arrives on the scene as an older and wiser Briony she’s never quite able to get back to Ronan’s level and it shows. That’s not a dig on Garai in any fashion.
The transition to Robbie’s point of view as he wanders the battlefields of France suffers similarly; McAvoy just isn’t as interesting suffering from the depredation of war as he was overcoming class division and silent longing earlier. It doesn’t help that the war sections tend to be the most lyrical (in effort if not in effect) sequences in the film, with large portions devoted to visual rather than narrative storytelling. Wright is an absurdly talented visual director and “Atonement” offers him plenty of opportunities to put his talents to the test culminating in one awe-inspiring 4 ½ minute shot of the evacuation at Dunkirk but the drawback is that sort of thing can mostly only hint at substance, and tension is difficult to sustain.
Ultimately, “Atonement’s” goal is so ephemeral that film may not be able to do the original complete justice. All that said, though, it’s still a fantastic piece of craftsmanship, benefiting from loving direction and truly excellent source material, and if “Atonement” never quite lives up to the promise of the first half, it’s not from lack of trying.