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Atonement – mangled McEwan movie makes money



Atonement – Joe Wright

(BBC Prize Review)

Andre Previn to Eric Morecombe, “you’re playing all the wrong notes.” Eric Morecombe, lifting the Maestro up onto his toes by his DJ lapels, “no, I’m playing all the right notes……but not necessarily in the right order.” Joe Wright has gone one better in this extraordinarily bad film – he has managed to get all the wrong notes in the wrong order. When he sees what has been done to his book Ian McEwan must be spitting blood all the way to the bank.

Critical reaction to this film beggars belief. Bad is bad and pretending otherwise does not seem to me to do any worthwhile service to the British Film Industry or our genuine home-grown talent including that misused in this chocolate box of a movie..

There is only one scene in Atonement that does not seem to me contrived, clichéd, false, and acted in a style a bewildering mixture of Invasion of The Body Snatchers and Brief Encounter. That’s some spread. This scene at a mortally wounded French soldier’s bedside comes an hour and a half in and is the first in all that time not to be drenched in the most intrusive, overblown musical score I have ever heard in a movie. Even Brief Encounter only had snatches of Rachmaninov used to good romantic effect. In every other scene in Atonement either tinkling piano or surging strings tell us how to feel about every scene displayed. Director Wright gives Christopher Hampton’s screenplay absolutely no chance. Unforgiveable that a film treatment of a literary work should not give its own words any chance to breathe. As the scenes themselves are already shot with a mind-numbing literalness, the overall effect is the aesthetic equivalent of trying to read McEwan’s infinitely better book printed completely in bold italicised capitals, finally underlined in case we didn’t get the stress. Indeed this is the first movie I have ever seen with sound effects so precise and persistent they drive you nuts.

McEwan for me is a cold, but always interesting writer. Above all he is a craftsman. He must be furious at the sheer ineptitude of this effort to bring his book to life on the screen; even if the cash won’t let him admit it. It was always a big ask. McEwan is fascinated by people rather as a pathologist is: his fascination is forensic; he loves to cut and dig, open up and find out how we work, what makes us tick. He often, as here and certainly in Enduring Love, sets up the dramatic context with a narrative device. He is also a writer interested in ideas which he develops through his carefully constructed plots. Here I suppose the distinction between fictional and aesthetic truth and truthfulness. And I felt from the book at least, the essentially existential nature of moral choice. In an instant of time one can make a choice that is both wrong and irremediable: a moment that defines the lives to follow. Very much a Conrad theme. It also recalls the life-defining childhood action of the young Georges in Haneke’s Cache (Hidden). Like Haneke, McEwan adds complexity to such a moral dilemma by posing it to a 13 year-old before she is old enough to understand all the forces involved.

In Atonement ‘too-imaginative-for-her-own-good’ would-be writer Briony Tallis (13) sees through a window her older sister Cecilia, ‘C’ (Keira Knightley) in a sexually ambiguous scene with up-from-the-servants’-quarters Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). We later discover that pubescent Briony has ‘feelings’ for Robbie herself. When later asked by Robbie to deliver a letter to ‘C’, Briony opens it first and sees a crude sexually explicit note Robbie has mistakenly sealed in the envelope in place of the more respectful note he meant Briony to deliver. The effect of the note on Cecilia is a rush of emotion that turns her on; but on Briony an explosion of confused feelings most of which she is as yet too young to fully understand that turns her off. When she then witnesses Robbie and C giving the fullest expression to the sexual feelings aroused by the mistakenly delivered version of the note, Briony adjudges Robbie to be sexually obsessed.

Lola and twins Jackson and Pierrot are relations of Briony’s age being sheltered from the effects of their parents’ divorce. When The twins decide to run away in the night a search party is set up to scour the grounds. In the darkness Briony interrupts Lola being raped in the woods. The man runs off. Lola affects not to know who he was and in the pivotal moment of the book and the film, Briony says it was Robbie and that she saw him clearly. She sticks to this story throughout police questioning and Robbie is eventually imprisoned for rape. Five years later, on the cusp of World War 2, he is given a choice – enlist or stay in jail. So we find the disgraced Robbie trapped in the disastrous retreat from Dunkirk. Cecilia has always believed in him and has never spoken to Briony again. Their parents have only too readily accepted Robbie’s guilt although the now 18 year-old has admitted that she lied.

This is a tough device to sell in. McEwan just about succeeds in the book but has the benefit of all the little accumulated details that the literary form gives him to draw the reader into the fascinating consequences rather than the implausibility of the initial set up. Wright’s Direction is far too pedestrian and literal to convey any of this air of credibility. His efforts are not helped by quite bewildering direction of his actor’s performances. Briony scuttles about in a strange jerky straight line gait like a child superstitiously trying to miss cracks in the pavement. Both at 13 and 18 she is given to zombie-like empty stares into camera usually captured by a seemingly endless series of slow zooms into close-up that just convey a sense of Invasion of The Body Snatchers-type menace. Keira Knightley and McAvoy talk with accents so cut glass and affected they make dear old Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson sound ‘plebby’. The whole thing plays out like an OTT scene from a Noel Coward play. And all the time that bloody music surges and flows on. And on. And on.

The scenes on the beach at Dunkirk and later in blitzed London are farcical in their clichéd imagery. Little cockney sparra speeches, arthritic old ladies pushing antique prams, a cockney kid who looked as if he needed to be taught how to skip etc etc. The already totally false scenes on Dunkirk beach are given an added sense of surrealism when somehow, almost magically Robbie finds himself in a cellar where a full-size cinema screen is playing a romantic Hollywood movie. The sole purpose for this appears to be that Wright can then show us the real Robbie silhouetted against the fictional romance of the images behind him. This isn’t metaphorical is just dumb.

There is hardly a scene in the movie where Wright denies himself a chocolate-box shot; ‘C’ sitting by the sea with a magnificent sea swept Dover Cliffs behind her looks like an outtake from Ryan’s Daughter; a gently turning Ferris Wheel on the Dunkirk beach; McAvoy framed by a sunset etc etc. His camera constantly tracks and pans and zooms for absolutely no coherent dramatic purpose and the within the scene ‘cut’ seems to have eluded Editor Paul Tothill completely.

Having failed even to hint at any of the interesting ideas that lie at the heart of McEwan’s interesting book, Wright tries to tack these on the end with a gratuitous TV interview with the aging, dying, Briony promoting her last book ‘Atonement’ on TV. Vanessa Redgrave does her best with this but it is such a palpable act of narrative desperation, the heart sinks. But worse is to come, God forbid that I should ruin the elegaicly romantic ending but it is both shameless and shameful.

My wife asked on the way home how a negative review helped anyone. There’s a pompous answer to that I’ll spare you but given the extraordinary complimentary press this tosh has been given – you at least have an opposing view. I may not be ‘right’ and many of you will disagree – this for me this one is a really disappointing mess.

(January 2008)

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