Atonement, Joe Wright's version of Ian McEwan's novel, is visually snappy but emotionally inert, and it distorts the novel's much talked-about, already problematic, extra-narrative twist so profoundly that it left me aghast. I don't normally think it necessary to compare and contrast a film and its literary source; films are one thing, novels another. But when the movie leaves such a nasty aftertaste, it's worth consulting the original to see what went wrong. Here, the problem is, quite simply, Hollywood values replacing the novel's bitter irony, which was rather cheap and manipulative in its way, but still vastly preferable to the turd pudding that Wright and his screenwriter, Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons), serve up in the movie's closing moments. (Spoilers galore from here on.)
McEwan's book is a self-aware, Anglophilic historical novel in the vein of The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Remains of the Day. The plot is kick-started by fiction-obsessed rich girl Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), who at 13 falsely accuses Robbie (James McAvoy), the hunky, smart son of her estate's chief cook, of raping Briony's cousin, Lola (Juno Temple). Briony's accusation was motivated partly by jealousy of Briony's sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), whom Briony caught in flagrante with Robbie, Briony's crush object. This textbook example of coitus interruptus—Robbie banging Cecilia against a bookshelf; take that, canon!—occurred the same day that Briony accidentally intercepted a draft of an explicit love letter from Robbie to Cecilia that was never supposed to see the light of day. (There's so much sexual hysteria on this country estate that I wouldn't have been surprised if Briony had started envisioning ghostly maids and footmen a la Turn of the Screw.) Turns out Lola was actually raped by a guest of the Tallises, budding chocolate bar magnate Paul Marshall, a capitalist pig who would later marry Lola, thus preventing her from ever testifying against him. Wright and Hampton telegraph Marshall's scumminess in an early scene where he gives Lola a chocolate bar and encourages her to bite down on it. It's like a Benny Hill moment without the laugh track.
Wright, who gave the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice momentum but not much elegance, directs with a lot more control here. He has told interviewers that he watched David Lean's Brief Encounter for inspiration, and something about the mix of densely packed compositions, lithe camera moves and quick edits did remind me of Lean when he was, well, lean. The early sequences on the estate consist mainly of exposition—establishing the relationships between the characters, and setting up the likelihood of Robbie leaving the estate, and Cecilia, to seek his fortune in medical school—but it rarely plays as such, and Wright has a deft touch with actors. Like an old-time movie craftsman, he pushes them to be idiosyncratic but not too hammy. As the self-possessed but neurotic Cecilia, Knightley is haughty but never inhuman. McAvoy exhibits a lean physicality; he runs more convincingly than any screen star since the young Mel Gibson, and he's mastered the art of the private smile and the meaningful yet naturalistic gesture. Watch the scene where Robbie writes multiple drafts of his love letter to Cecilia before attending dinner with all the swells: from the sheepish/proud grin on his face as he nixes a sexy draft to the spring in his step as he crosses the room, tuxedo-clad, and taps the envelope twice on the door as he exits, it's a master class in acting with the body. Wright handles the script's many time-shifting transitions adroitly; you're confused at first, but once you get the hang of the movie's odd rhythms, you anticipate and appreciate the cues. The five-and-a-half minute tracking shot around Robbie and his platoon-mates on the beach at Dunkirk has been rapped as too inorganic and showy (not at all like Children of Men, presumably); but I liked it because it was a spectacular respite from directorial good taste, and because its confident movement from the horrific (bloody corpses) to the mundane (a man practicing on a pommel-horse) to the sentimental (a soldier's choir singing in a gazebo) reminded me of post-'50s Fellini.
Later, there's a haunting shot of Cecilia and Robbie, furtive lovers long separated by personal misfortune and war, canoodling in an apartment window; the camera suddenly plummets to street level, revealing the teenaged Briony (Ramola Garai) standing at the base of the building. Wright's staging—the dazzling fall to the street; the positioning of Briony center-frame, seeming to stare into the viewer's eyes—made me expect the young woman to burst into song. There are many such moments in Atonement—moments charged with the sort of formalized, show-bizzy emotion we enjoy in theater; moments that suggest the opera or musical that the film could have been. Such a tactic would have risked colossal artistic failure at worst, audience alienation at best, because let's face it, who wants to see a grim epic musical about class exploitation, war and betrayal? (Me!) But the result doubtless would have been less distressing than what Wright and Hampton have come up with: a film that equates fiction with deception and cowardice with bravery.
Which brings us back to the epilogue, the screen version of which singlehandedly transforms an involving middlebrow epic drama into an inadvertent example of the self-serving confessional mentality that has poisoned Western public life in the post-Oprah era. McEwan's book reveals that Briony later became a successful author and that, 50 years after her false rape accusation destroyed her relationship with Cecilia and sent Robbie to prison and then war, she finally confronted her great sin in fictional form. She used her real name and the names of all the principal parties, but stopped short of full truth and gave herself a scene of pained apology to her sister and Robbie—a scene that Briony admits didn't happen because she got cold feet. The final knife-twist: Briony tells us that the manuscript you just read won't be published until after she and the other major players in the drama are dead. The Marshall family, she says, was quite powerful and "...active about the courts since the late '40s, defending their good names with a most expensive ferocity."
In contrast to some of the best books in the tradition of Atonement—books that wove deconstructionist elements throughout their stories, to highlight the manipulative techniques of fiction and the differences in mores between the time in which the book was set and the time in which it was written—McEwan back-loads modernist noodling into an epilogue that at first seems shockingly arbitrary: "Just kidding—the lovers didn't live happily ever after, they died miserably, and the bad little girl sat on her treachery for the rest of her life. The end." What saves McEwan's big twist from sadistic preciousness is the sense that he isn't so much letting Briony off the hook as letting her hang herself. What I got from McEwan's book was a faint but discernible exasperation with Briony, and anyone who mistakes epiphany for action. "It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy," Briony writes. "It was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have." Well, maybe—but as morals go, "Fess up to lies immediately" isn't bad, either. Cecilia and Robbie might have lived happily ever after had Briony told the truth sooner (or even later). Posthumously righting the scales through fiction isn't moral redress—and based on previous McEwan novels, I doubt McEwan intended that as his message.
But the filmmakers do—either that, or they have so little control over the tone of the final sequence that we come away thinking that they do. The screen version of Briony's addendum—starring Vanessa Redgrave as the sixty-something novelist, her written confession converted into a monologue delivered during a TV interview—turns self-justification into artistic generosity. Briony is yet another author pimping personal shame on television to sell books and throw herself on the public's mercy, but the scene's sentimental conception is pure Oscar clip bulldozing. In McEwan's novel, when Briony says that her self-flattering embellishment "isn't weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end," McEwan's dry presentation at least permits us the luxury of a raised eyebrow. With Redgrave gazing at us helplessly, conscience wilts like a three-day-old funeral wreath. The star's haunted charisma prods us to give Briony the benefit of the doubt. We can't help being moved by this aged liar and wanting to forgive her so she, at least, can rest in peace. In the immortal words of John Keats, fuck you, lady.
Matt Zoller Seitz is Editor-in-Chief of The House Next Door.