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The Writer's Strife

An Author Tries To Find Forgiveness--But Never Forgets--In This Sharp Literary Adaptation

GRUDGING A NURSE: Romola Garai (Left) Comes to Terms With Ruining Two Lives

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 12/12/2007

If Love in the Time of Cholera is a textbook example of how not to adapt a modern literary masterwork, Atonement is an example of how to do it right. It's not enough to snatch key plot points and bits of dialogue from the book; you must translate the emotional glue that hold the words together on the page into a similar adhesive for images and sound. That's just what director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) have done in adapting Ian McEwan's brilliant 2001 novel.

The movie opens on a British country estate in the summer of 1935. Banging away on an old manual typewriter is Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), old enough to be writing her first play but not old enough to understand her pubescent crush on the estate's hired man, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), nor to understand the tension between Robbie and her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). The typewriter's percussion segues seamlessly into the soaring music score, just as any 13-year-old writer believes it should, and thus suggests Briony's romantic fog. It will not be the last time that Wright achieves a literary effect without the use of words.

He does it again a few scenes later, when Briony gazes from the second floor window as her sister and Robbie squabble by the backyard fountain. Briony, of course, can't hear a word they're saying, so the sequence unfolds like a silent film. The youngster sees a flash of anger and a splash as Cecilia dives into the pool, only to emerge moments later with her peach slip plastered tight and translucent against her body as she stands before Robbie. Briony is so stunned by this sexuality that she twists away from the window with her eyes popped open.

An adult can view such a scene much differently than a naïve young girl, and Wright reminds us of that by redoing the whole scene from the perspective of Robbie, the hired hand who excelled at Cambridge and plans to attend medical school with the family's help, and Cecilia, who appears to have just admitted to herself how attractive her childhood chum is. What ensues is not a matter of male predation, as Briony supposes, but a matter of female flirtation. And when that flirtation leads to carnal coupling in the manor library that evening, there's another scene for Briony to misinterpret.

Wright and Hampton do such a terrific job at evoking Briony's sexual confusion (she lies in knee-high summer grass and watches the pollen drift by) and the sexual chemistry between Cecilia and Robbie (they shatter a ceramic urn just by gripping it so hard) that the tension is at high pitch by the time the sun goes down. After dinner, Briony's two younger cousins disappear, and the whole family--Briony, Cecilia, their mother, their brother, his school pal, and the 15-year-old cousin Lola (Juno Temple)--go searching through the darkened grounds with flashlights.

This only heightens the tension further, and when Briony trains her flashlight on a male atop Lola in the bushes, she's convinced it's Robbie. That's what she tells the family as well as the police, and the more she repeats her story, the more her doubts subside. Robbie protests his innocence, but Mrs. Tallis beats her umbrella on the police car, shouting, "Liar, liar, liar," and that, too, becomes part of the music's percussion.

The movie jumps to 1940. Robbie has been released from prison to join the British army in northern France; Cecilia is an experienced nurse in one London hospital, and the 17-year-old Briony (now played by Romola Garai) is a trainee nurse in another. The younger sister begins to realize what actually happened that night five years earlier and what terrible harm her accusation has caused. As a confused 13-year-old, she's not entirely to blame for the mistake, but neither is she blameless, and the injury is just as great in either case. How can she atone for misguided honesty? Can she ever repair the damage done?

Wright and Hampton wrestle with these questions with the same intelligence and nuance as McEwan, using sights and sounds as adeptly as the novelist used words. There's a bravura, six-minute tracking shot through the British troops awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk, a shot that captures all the contradictions of war--men waving from a commandeered Ferris wheel while officers shoot their horses on the beach. There are metaphoric shots of Briony scrubbing toilets and changing bloody bandages at the hospital. And there's a heart-stopping coda, a 1999 television interview with the 76-year-old Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), talking about her latest book, Atonement, and the unsatisfying substitutions for that word she had to accept.

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