Who will atone for Atonement?

With its sometimes plodding direction and balsa-wood acting, the film version of Atonement loses the fizz and drama of Ian McEwan's novel.

Emily Hill

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Last week, I woke up to find my eyes glued together with thick yellow flakes of congealed pus. Prising the lids apart to find red eyeballs and a bleed of white glue steaming from the sides, day in day out, was pretty awful. Reader, I had conjunctivitis. And then I was sent to review Atonement, when clawing at my eyes at least kept me conscious through one of the most boring films of the decade. It is unprofessional to fall asleep.

Never judge a film by its poster. By the look of the one for Atonement, you’d think you were in for a treat. There’s James McAvoy, surely the tastiest British actor of his generation, staring about moodily in a poppy field, and Keira Knightley pouting beautifully. The advert is even better – it rollocks along, packing all the punches you were promised by Ian McEwan’s book.

The novel opens on a boiling hot day in 1935. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis has written a play for the homecoming of her elder brother Leon, and her cousins are proving troublesome actors. Briony’s elder sister, Cecilia, is confused about her feelings towards Robbie, the son of the family’s cleaning lady, who was put through Cambridge University by Cecilia’s father. Matters soon come to a head between Robbie and Cecilia and they become declared lovers, watched by Briony – who does not quite understand what she is seeing. Later in the evening, a rape occurs and Briony falsely accuses Robbie; this ruins Robbie and divides him from Cecilia – an act which Briony, at the close of her life, still wishes she could atone for.

There was much talk (as usual) of the seeming ‘unadaptability’ of a McEwan book, of the film’s brilliant new British director, Joe Wright, and of that well-known slither of acting balsa wood, Keira Knightley, proving herself capable of ‘doing sexy’. The poster reviewers promised a ‘breathtaking’, ‘essential experience’.

I didn’t really fancy Knightley, as I like my boys to have pecs, but she does look stunning in the film and acquits herself better than she does in most of the films she stars in – helped, perhaps, by the fact her character was meant to be posh and leaden and Knightley is, by nature, posh and leaden. I’m distraught to say that McAvoy doesn’t fare much better, as lines of dialogue stripped from the book are delivered to his piece of balsa wood without much of a hint that he’s in love with it. ‘I’m sorry, I got lorrrrrst’, McAvoy says, staring just so. Later on, he restates that he wants to be ‘the man who with the clarity of passion made love to you in the liiiiiibraire [library].’ That odd mixture of rawness and languor that McEwan so brilliantly evokes in the book is lost. In the film, one wishes that Robbie would stick to writing letters. And when Knightley has to stop being posh and leaden, and act like she’s madly in love with James McAvoy, she can’t do it either. There’s more sexual tension on Crimewatch. As a result, instead of being appalled by Briony’s betrayal of Robbie, and of her sister’s happiness, one can’t help agreeing with her, that something very, very disturbing just occurred in the library and it should be put a stop to by any means necessary. In fact, it is with Briony that the film almost stumbles into brilliance: the young actress Saoirse Ronan is ‘breathtaking’ in her ability to bring the character to life.

But the skill of a child actor can’t make up for the fact that the pace is wrong. One of the reasons that McEwan’s books compel is that, once you’re strapped in, you can’t stop turning the pages. But choosing to show Briony’s misinterpretation of events by showing the events twice – firstly from Briony’s perspective, and then from Robbie’s and Cecilia’s – makes the film plod. In theory, it is a clever conceit, and gets over the difficulties in faithfully portraying the book’s ambiguities – but it dissolves the tension. So for all its beautifully shot scenery, and ominous typewriter-style tip-tapping soundtrack, Joe Wright’s film withers instead of bolting forwards.

One would expect, sitting in a cinema littered with women so tragically single they spent the last day of summer perving on James McAvoy rather than socialising with human beings, in a part of town so decrepit and dingy the cinema security guards do bag checks on entry, there would be enough collective depression to get the tissues out and blow noses, as we discover what becomes of our heroes. But any heartstrings that should have been tugged are un-twanged by Knightley’s monotone reprise: ‘Come baiiiiick to me, come baaaiiickkk.’ The only one wailing was me. And it had less to do with the film than with my burning eyeballs.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and freelances for Clash and Dazed and Confused.

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