For those who like their English classics full of barely-repressed sexual tension, terribly cut-glass accents, huge sweeping war scenes and hints of class prejudice, Atonement is the biggest and most anticipated release of the year. Based on Ian McEwan’s novel, one of the most compelling works of fiction of recent years, however, there’s a good deal more to it.
Set in a 1930s country house, the domestic scenes are well-trodden territory for film-makers, with a cast of hot young leads (Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai) and established older actors (Brenda Blethyn, Harriet Walter) larking around in carefree days before war tears into an ostensibly civilised world. What rips through these people’s lives though is the confused imagination-fuelled accusations of a 13 year old girl, the war only finishing what her immature fantasies set in motion.
That two young stars can carry a substantial part of a major film is quite an achievement. There’s a palpable sexual tension between Knightley and McAvoy and the latter in particular shows all the potential of a promising leading actor. Knightley also subverts expectations with a subtle and often moving performance, showing that she’s more than just a stick in an expensive dress. Her emergence from the fountain with her flesh-coloured underwear tightly coating her skinny frame does for this character what Colin Firth did on TV for Mr Darcy. And to capitalise on the image, director Joe Wright repeats the scene a number of times.
This isn’t gratuitous, though, with the chronology of the film whirled around and other scenes shown more than once, from slightly different angles. With playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (best known to filmgoers for Dangerous Liaisons) adapting the novel for the screen, it manages to stay faithful to the source material while widening its scope in true cinematic fashion. In the middle section, set during the calamitous Battle of France and near-disastrous evacuation from Dunkirk, there’s an attention-grabbing single shot scene which tries to out-Orson the famous one from Touch of Evil, and it probably succeeds. It may be a bid for cinema immortality by Wright (whose previous feature film was the Knightley-led Pride and Prejudice) but it impresses nonetheless.
While the leads do a sterling job in the early part of the film, they don’t quite do justice to the later scenes, when their youth and lack of emotional experience can’t rise to the challenge of portraying the turmoil and pain that these people have been through. Wright also fails McEwan’s starkly beautiful prose with too much sentimentalising and a lush heartstring-tugging score by Dario Marianelli that often intrudes.
But despite some disappointments in this as a literary adaptation, it is sure to please those who enjoyed the likes of The English Patient (there’s a nod in that direction with the casting of director Anthony Minghella as a TV interviewer), a movie it resembles with its graphic war-time hospital scenes and upper-class romantic tanglings.