Secrets and lies
A demanding novel is brilliantly translated into film, writes Michael Dwyer ATONEMENT Directed by Joe Wright. Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave, Juno Temple, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gina Mc
THE recurring sound effect in Atonement – of a manual typewriter tapping out letters – is significant for a number of reasons. The film begins as “The end” is typed by 13-year- old Briony Tallis in an upstairs room of her family’s mansion in Surrey. A bright, precocious and self-absorbed girl with a fertile imagination, Briony has just completed her first play.
It is the first of several fictions she will create during the course of the drama. Because of what she concocts next, her play is never staged. That is nothing compared to the devastating repercussions of the lie Briony tells that evening. It’s a reckless claim, founded in her adolescent misunderstanding of two scenes she witnesses.
Both involve her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), a recent Cambridge graduate, and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). The son of one of the household staff (Brenda Blethyn), he, too, has returned from Cambridge, where the Tallis family paid his fees.
From her upstairs window Briony observes – and misinterprets – a playful tussle between Cecilia and Robbi. Kept apart by class divisions down the years, their passion for each other is released on what is the hottest day in the summer of 1935. When Briony next sees them together, she mistakes an act of love for aggression, prompting the accusation that will change all three of their lives permanently.
The complete significance of Atonement as the title of the film, and the Ian McEwan novel on which it is based, is not clear until much later in the story, which transfers seamlessly to the screen in Christopher Hampton’s consummate adaptation.
Hampton, in consultation with director Joe Wright, creates inspired cinematic solutions to address the interior nature of the novel, and the book’s coda, which presented them with their most difficult challenge. The film makes ingenious use of the device whereby key events are revisited from different perspectives.
Wright, an experienced television director, treats this material with remarkable insight, assurance and visual style for someone on just his second feature. He made an engaging cinema debut two years ago with his rejuvenation of Pride & Prejudice; by coincidence, McEwan’s novel is prefaced with an excerpt from another Austen novel, Northanger Abbey.
When the enthralling narrative proceeds to the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, the gifted Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey excels, lighting the action in painterly tones and catching the chaos in a virtuoso extended tracking shot. Throughout its time-shifting structure, Atonement is expertly crafted by a team that notably includes art director Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Jacqueline Durran and composer Dario Marianelli.
All deserve to be serious contenders at Oscar time next spring, as do the leading players. McAvoy is marvellously expressive in a touching, riveting performance. On the evidence of this and Pride & Prejudice, Knightley truly blossoms under Wright’s direction.
International film-makers have been lining up to sign Saoirse Ronan, the young Carlow actress, and now we understand why. Speaking with a cut-glass English accent, she demonstrates a distinctive, perfectly understated screen presence, bringing Briony, the barefoot girl on the jacket of McEwan’s novel, vividly to life in all her youthful complexity.
Childhood’s end: Briony (Saoirse Ronan) sets the tragic train of event in motion