It’s a while since I read the novel, so I couldn’t swear to it, but my impression is that the film is pretty close to the book. Certainly the basic structure is the same, the majority of book and film is devoted to Briony as a girl during the one fateful day in 1935, the middle section is split between Robbie at Dunkirk and Briony as a nurse, then there is a brief coda with Briony as an old novelist. Some of the detail is different (most noticeably, I don’t think the old Briony section is treated as an interview in the novel), and some things are passed over more briefly in the film (the scene at Lola’s wedding to Paul Marshall is, I am sure, more prominent in the novel). But essentially this is about as true an adaptation as you could hope to find.
Which includes the fact that the sentiment (and occasional sentimentality) that drips from the film is there is the novel also. Hardly surprising, though he disguises it with forensic detail often of rather gruesome things (cutting up the body in The Innocent, the operation in Saturday), McEwan is actually quite a sentimental writer. His latest novella, On Chesil Beach is a case in point. Not quite tear-jerkers for the literati, but there are occasions when he comes close. And since Atonement was deliberately set up as a tragic romance in a country house setting, it really lends itself to this Merchant-Ivory-isation.
What I liked particularly about the film was Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony, the way she marches through the house, the way her face plays with the misery of not quite knowing what was going on. She commanded the film during the first section (a task made easier by the general drippiness of the adults around her), and the reason the second part of the film fell off so badly was, in large part, due to the fact that Romola Garai, who took over the role, made Briony bland. Mind you, in compensation, James McAvoy, who is pretty much a pretty blank in the first part of the film is considerably better in the Dunkirk section.
What I had problems with was the lack of depth. I say that the film is an accurate version of the novel, and in terms of what actually happens (and the cleverness of the perspective shifts in the first part, which are really well done) it is. But any film is inevitably an abridgement of a novel, and the film inevitably made some of the events in the country house quite perfunctory, so the depth of the tragedy doesn’t come across. But strangely, despite the production values (as Andrew Butler puts it) lavished on the bravura beach scene, it was the Dunkirk section that felt most perfunctory to me. Robbie is fit and efficient, a natural leader (so much so that, although he is only a private, his corporal accepts him as leader). Then he has a brief dream sequence in which he imagines his mother washing his feet, and immediately after that he is ill. There is no sense that the dream is a symptom of impending illness, there is no sense that the cafe he imagines is where he contracts septicemia, there is just an abrupt transition from hale and hearty to sick and feeble. (To be honest, I’m not sure that this passage works in the novel as well as it should, but it certainly doesn’t work in the film.)
Oh, and the film makers have drastically screwed up on the chronology. Either the opening caption should have been 1936, not 1935, or the mid-point caption that takes us to Dunkirk should have read five years later, not four years later. A small point, maybe, but it betokens a carelessness on the part of the makers.
And the final chocolate box scene should not have been allowed. The elderly Briony’s words should have been enough, we didn’t need our own false happy ending.
Yet, despite all that, I did enjoy the film. Mostly, I suppose, because of how much I enjoyed the novel.
First published at LiveJournal, 24 September 2007.