When asked to carry the weight of epic, tragic suffering of Peter Wright's Atonement on her shoulders, Keira Knightley is no Meryl Streep ala The French Lieutenant's Woman. As Critic After Dark Noel Vera notes, the actress can barely hold up a romantic comedy.

Joe Wright's Atonement (2007) isn't half so bad; for at least most of the running time, it's a dandy, sumptuous adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel about a young girl (Briony Tallis, played by Saoirse Roman), her lies, and their devastating effect on the lives of two young lovers (Robby Turner and Cecilia Tallis, respectively played by James McAvoy and Kiera Knightley).

Along the way Wright brings Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's talents to bear, and manages to evoke a world of half-lit rooms and overcast landscapes; if the sun ever does break through (as it does in a lengthy four-minute shot, in Dunkirk), it's to bathe the characters in the warm glow of a coal fire, a dying one, meant partly to symbolize the lovers' dimmed hopes for a happy life, partly to express the Allies' slim chances for survival, partly to suggest the fading might of the British empire.

It's extraordinarily shot, and the four-minute plus sequence in particular is an impressive stunt borne out of necessity (Wright had lost a day of shooting, so he decided to film most of the Dunkirk sequence in a single take) and a presumed hunger to win one of those gold doorstops Hollywood filmmakers always scramble after (somewhat successfully; for the record it earned several nominations, among them best picture--won only for music), never mind that much of it is sentimental claptrap (the choir singing a mournful dirge, the horses being slaughtered (a reference perhaps to a similar scene in Theo Angelopoulos' great Topio stin omichli (Landscapes in the Mist, 1988)?)).

Equally impressive if not more so (and far more relevant to the narrative) is a shot of the star-crossed lovers kissing at a window, and the camera descending to capture the young girl, now a young woman, standing below, pointedly exempted from their romantic bliss. It should be clear to anyone watching that Wright is doing his level best to pump up the proceedings, to shake the cobwebs from an otherwise standard-issue period picture, with anemic sensibility and doddering good taste.

And Wright might be right to do this too, if it was anything like his last work, a 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (maybe not--Austen is one of the least sentimental of great writers, and if it takes a bit of introduction to ease oneself into her world of precisely tooled social cogs and gearwheels, once in you eventually sense an overall intelligence controlling the action, commenting on it with a cool, confident air (Austen's authorial voice, in fact). That intelligence does not, I believe, need any explaining; it's immortal, universal, the source of her enduring greatness).

But the source for this picture is McEwan, one of the more modern (post-modern?) of sensibilities, with a streak of perverse cruelty matched only perhaps by John Fowles. Does McEwan need any easing into his world, any prefatory note to warn us of the complexities of his narrative? I think not; I think much of the shenanigans Wright inserts into the picture are pretty much unnecessary (this including the virtuoso long take at Dunkirk).

McEwan has been better served by filmmakers who recognize the strangeness of his fiction, who allow that strangeness to shine all the brighter by keeping the visual style low-key and familiar (think of the austere camerawork (in otherwise decadent Venetian settings) of Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers (1990)--possibly the best adaptation of McEwan to date).

Wright reveals himself in a series of missteps. The crucial scene at the library is pretty much chopped up (did Kiera Knightley insist that her nipples not be shown?), so that we're as confused about what's going on as poor Briony, who thinks Cecilia is being raped; when Briony crashes a church wedding and sits by a soldier dying in bed, the lighting and music are so stylized that we can't help but feel we're witnessed to an extended fevered dream. Which, as it turns out, may be the case, giving the game away early.

To be fair, Wright's choice of Roman as Briony is brilliant--Roman at thirteen captures the repulsive yet fascinating self-absorption of a sexually curious brat, and her equivalent at 18, actress Romola Garai, shows us in what directions of acute loneliness her monstrousness is headed. His casting of James McAvoy as the unfortunate Robbie isn't too bad; McAvoy captures the helpless anger of lower-class men promised equality by liberal patriarchs, only to have it suddenly snatched away.

Knightley as Cecilia, however, is disastrous--Knightley may have snowed critics with her performance in Pride and Prejudice (which may be why Wright believes in her so much) but here she's asked to carry the weight of epic, tragic suffering on shoulders that look as if they could barely hold up a romantic comedy.

(Romantic comedy's no joke--that's why I couldn't buy Knightley in Pride and Prejudice and why I thought Wright's version an overstrenuous affair, gothic and hyperventilating. Better yet is the 1995 BBC mini-series, which ran at the proper length (five hours' worth) to capture Austen's precise tone, or even Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995) which transposed Austen's Emma to Beverly Hills, neatly bypassing the problem of a quick and painless introduction to Austen's intricate society (Heckerling's genius conceit is that Hollywood teen flicks and Beverly Hills, 90210 have already done the job for her, and that these frivolous, totally useless social classes are worthy of attention, even of imaginative transformation into great comedy--a sentiment of which Austen herself might have approved).)

Wright's ending is a disaster, a monstrously misconceived tearjerking farce to rival the climax of Kurosawa's Subarashiki nichiyobi (One Wonderful Sunday, 1947) or Peter Jackson's abysmally sticky King Kong (2005), with its hundred ton anthropoid gone ice-skating.

The action has moved to present day, and Briony (now played by Vanessa Redgrave) is being interviewed on television; some startling revelations are made (startling only, of course, if you haven't noticed all the clues Wright has been dropping like thousand-pound bombs throughout the latter half of the movie), and the picture ends with Redgrave essentially pleading with the audience to clap their hands and believe in fairies.

I've heard alternate interpretations--that Briony's position is just wishful thinking, and meant to be taken as such--but it's hard not to think that Wright has cast his lot firmly and unambiguously with the character when he unleashes the physically impressive Redgrave on us, in gigantic close-up (Knightley, by way of comparison, looks like an amuse bouche on a toothpick). McEwan should spin in his grave upon viewing what they've done to his novel, I think; or, since he's still living among us, he should keel over dead and then start spinning, stat.

Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@yahoo.com
First published in Businessworld, 03.14.08.

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April 7, 2008