Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the heavyweight championship of two worlds. In the left corner we have "Atonement," a literary classic that climaxes with a clobbering left-of-field hook. In the right corner, we have the top-ranked fighter in the Oscar division thanks to its upper-class cut. If these two contenders were equally matched, it would end in a clinch. But as the ref, I'm calling this bout a knockout for Ian McEwan's book in the second round.
Director Joe Wright's film is the work of an assured filmmaker, but this adaptation falls short of its source material in its second half. Without giving away the plot, the book hinges on the naive assertion made by a 13-year-old girl, Briony Thallis, that leads to the imprisonement of a young man named Robbie Turner in 1936. The film's account of these events is stellar. But once it time shifts to the second World War, when Robbie has been freed to fight for England, and Briony takes up work in a military hospital ward, the script scissors its way through McEwan's text, cutting to the quick -- and, in so doing, cutting out the heart of the novel.
The book chronicles the long, desperate slog across the north of France during the British retreat of 1940, each stage of the journey plunging into concentric circles of Miltonesque hell as Robbie and his two fellow soldiers encounter horrific scenes of war. McEwan had done meticulous homework to chronicle what happened prior to the evacuation of Dunkirk and it leaves a searing impression on the reader. That section of the novel also tells us more about Robbie's mental anguish and it brings home the full magnitude of what he encounters as a soldier. The reader can almost hear the sobbing cries of blistered heels as they tear up at each footfall. By contrast, the film pretty much cuts out the journey and quickly brings Robbie to the beach where thousands of soldiers await evacuation.
Similarly, the author details the boot camp-like rigor and hardship that Briony endures as a nurse -- her self-conscious act of atonement for her sin at age 13. And so, by failing to capture the full measure and impact of both characters' respective experiences, the film inadequately prepares the viewer for the final rug-pull in the Third Act, set in 1999. There's an act of contrition, but it doesn't feel fully earned by the 123 minute mark. Indeed, there's far too little of Briony in the movie because of the inordinate focus on Briony's sister, Cecilia (perhaps because the role is played by Keira Knightley, the film's sole marquee name, who gets to wear exquisite, waifer-thin costumes.)
Much has been made of the movie's four-minute tracking shot across Dunkirk -- one reliant on the precise choreography of a cast of thousands. Contrast this scene with the uninterrupted camera shot in a battle zone in last year's magnificent "Children of Men." There, the shot pulls the viewer deeper into the moment and quickens the pulse. It's entirely organic to the scene and it's only after the film that one even registers that director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki pulled off a continuous shot that outshines even the camera flourish at the beginning of Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil." But in "Atonement," the shot feels so self-conscious that it pulls one out of the movie.
Finally, when Brenda Blethyn started attacking a car with an umbrella during a scene in "Atonement," I couldn't help but think of this infamous moment in 2007 taloid news...