Page to Screen: Atonement (2007)

based on Atonement by Ian McEwan



The release of the film version of Atonement is what motivated me to pick up the novel in the first place. When I returned on campus Saturday evening, I was summoned to my dorm lobby to watch Atonement. The timing couldn’t have been better.

The plot is identical to the novel version–in 1935, young Briony Tallis makes a life altering error when she witnesses the budding love between her sister, Cecelia, and their charlady’s son, Robbie. We follow Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie through World War II and the aftermath of Briony’s awful mistake. It’s a remarkably faithful and streamlined adaptation. I smiled to see a nod to a chapter where Mrs. Tallis lies in bed with a headache and feels everything occurring in her house.

As a film, Atonement is gorgeous–beautiful colors, lovely costumes, and daring camera angles. I’d never seen a film directed by Joe Wright before, but I think I must seek him out further–he’s even attached to the remake of My Fair Lady starring Daniel Day Lewis and Keira Knightley, which I’m going to see anyway. (As a totally irrelevant side note, I am furiously disappointed Jeremy Irons isn’t playing Higgins.) Wright frames his actors in cunning and fresh ways, and contrasts Cecilia and Robbie against each other in the best of ways. It deals with Atonement’s overlapping of scenes by rewinding slightly and showing scenes again from a different perspective, which is the most effective with the first encounter between Cecilia and Robbie Briony witnesses.

The film really nails Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship, which makes it even more of a disappointment when Briony, the heart of the novel and the film, fails to measure up. For anyone who reads the novel, Briony’s innocent motivation is simple–protecting her sister from the advances of a man she believes is a sex maniac. The film doesn’t explore her motivation as thoroughly as it should. While it’s easy for a reader of the novel to understand Briony’s motivation, it’s harder for someone coming to the story through the film to understand her motivation. Briony ought to be a figure of great pity, but the girls I watched the film began to call for Briony’s blood soon after her horrific mistake. That is a fault of the writing, not the three actresses who portray Briony. The writing also adds in a scene where Robbie hallucinates speaking to his mother, an addition that confused and vexed me.

Saoirse Ronan is magnificent as the young Briony. She is precise, blindingly blue eyed, and terribly naive. I’m amazed by Ronan’s talent. I’m greatly looking forward to The Lovely Bones to see her act once more. Atonement is her film debut, which just floored me. Vanessa Redgrave as the elderly Briony is equally perfect–delicate, gnawed at by guilt, and resigned. The weak link is Romola Garai. Garai is quite a capable actress, but she’s way out of her league between Ronan and Redgrave. There are a few moments where she breaks through and becomes the Briony she ought to be for the entire performance, but these are too few. It’s quite a shame.

Atonement is well worth seeing solely for the direction and the wonderful performances by the cast, but it’s missing Briony’s heart as so thoroughly explored in the novel. I find the novel superior.

You can read my review of the novel here.

I watched a friend’s copy of this DVD.

10 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Atonement (2007)

  1. Hey Omnivore!
    Calling for Briony’s blood? Not so much from me. I think that the injustice of the events surrounding Robbie’s imprisonment leads first-time watchers (who haven’t read the novel)to implicate someone as the wrong-doer in order to somehow seek justice, even if it means casting blame on a naive, protective young girl to voice their outrage. After the initial viewing and shock, it becomes easier to think about Briony’s motivations without seeing her as “The Girl Who Ruined Everything,” at least for me. I’m glad you enjoyed the movie for what it’s worth (after all, movie adaptations so rarely meet the expectations set up in one’s mind), and I definitely plan on reading the book now!

  2. Great review! I thought the film was a great adaptation of the novel. I had been worried because Atonement is such an ‘interior’ book, with so many important things happening in characters’ minds. But the acting & cinematography and writing managed to get across some of those interior aspects.

    I didn’t get the same impression about the handling of Briony in the film, but then, the people who I’ve watched it with did not react the same way as your companions.

    I think all three actresses who portrayed Briony were top-notch, including Garai. That scene with her apologizing to Cecilia and Robbie was heartbreaking. The casting match between Ronan, Garai and Redgrave is spot-on.

    I understand why the film changed the ending (omitting the play scene) but it’s interesting that the film’s ending is actually bleaker than the book’s. Briony is alone in the film’s ending, unlike what happens in the book.

  3. I never do like Romola Garai. I always want to! And never do. I thought the film was so strange compared with the book – the book is so full of words, and the film is so cool and spare.

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