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|Written by Alexandra Lawless|
|Thursday, 28 February 2008 19:00|
Characters in Ian McEwan’s Atonement make important realisations throughout the story, but is simply awakening enough?
With its complicated flashbacks and skewed perspectives, Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement seemed impossible to translate to film. Director Joe Wright has, however, managed to adapt the story to screen beautifully, with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy starring as lovers Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner.
The novel tells of how, on a summer day in 1935, 13-year-old Briony, an aspiring writer, witnesses several interactions between her sister Cecilia and Robbie. Bored and starved for attention, Briony’s vivid imagination leads to a series of events that have devastating consequences for the people she loves. It is her slow awakening to the repercussions of her actions, and her search for forgiveness, that define the novel.
Atonement, published in 2001, was named Time magazine’s Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. McEwan’s lengthy descriptions, detailed histories and pages on wartime procedure can at times seem unnecessary, but his particular writing style is able to convey vivid images in just a few words. His characters have a depth that makes them understandable, even when behaving in seemingly stupid or naïve ways. His particular strength is demonstrated best when his characters are interacting with each other. The scenes between Robbie and Cecilia are powerful enough to resonate throughout the story, though they are rarely together after the first third of the novel.
McEwan describes several scenes more than once, through different characters’ perspectives. This power to pause and rewind, to take a closer look at what’s actually going on, is a privilege we have as the reader and the audience. The characters, however, are unfortunate victims of Briony’s misunderstanding and exaggeration.
The movie is an incredibly accurate adaptation. The story, characters, and tone all stay true to the novel. For Atonement is not a love story, or a true story, but the romance it contains feels very real. Knightley and McAvoy do a wonderful job of embodying the slight arrogance of Cecilia and the innate goodness of Robbie. The scenes between them feel appropriately awkward and tender, and translate well from the book. Briony is played by Saiorse Ronan, who received an Academy Award nomination for her role. Ronan brings Briony to life with a memorable performance, and by the end of the film makes the audience realize what a complicated and terrifying character she really is.
Though some things are inevitably lost in the translation from page to the screen, the film has certain advantages over the novel. In particular, its ability to cut long pages of description into a single shot or memorable image through the use of brilliant cinematography just isn’t possible on paper. A scene set during the Dunkirk evacuations, for example, is truly breathtaking in its complexity. The five-minute shot spans the entire beach, and features over a thousand extras and antique props. It creates a disturbingly detailed image of the chaos and confusion of war, and the movie as a whole begins to adopt a similarly chaotic tone.
Then the narrative shifts from images of war to the fallout in London hospitals, and we see an older Briony following her sister’s footsteps and training as a nurse. From this point, everything is told from Briony’s perspective, but this time we don’t have the ability to see what is real and what is childish fantasy.
The final scene of the film manages to improve on the final chapter in the novel. Though both are powerful, the movie brings us into reality by allowing us to hear the truth from Briony herself. The film’s last moments are heartbreaking and striking, and beautiful in a way that the novel hinted at, but couldn’t quite convey.
Atonement addresses the issue of children and responsibility. How much faith can we put in the testimony of a 13-year-old girl? At what point should children be held accountable for their actions? As the narrative unfolds, Briony eventually realizes the implications of her actions, but this brings up another, final issue: is simply knowing that we have done something wrong enough for us to be atoned? Both the film and the novel remind us that awakening to a certain fact or situation, or simply realizing that we have done wrong, is not enough. Unless there are actions to back up that realization, to right that wrong, nothing has really been achieved. While Briony, like other characters in the story, has an epiphany, unlike others, her actions either come too late or not at all. Joe Wright’s film, like McEwan’s novel, leaves it up to the audience to grapple with the lingering question of whether Briony ever really did atone for her actions.