Atonement (15)

Nothing to regret

This momentous adaptation of Ian McEwan's Booker-nominated novel arrives with such fanfare and folderol that you can almost smell the engine of the studio's publicity machine overheating. I seem to have read more interviews and articles about the film than anything else this summer bar Amy Winehouse's drug problems.

The studio is right to think it is on to something, what with its two hot leads, a director whose 2005 debut, Pride & Prejudice, made a decent fist of the nation's most loved book, and the prestigious shadow cast by a novel some would rate as its author's very best.

The main challenge that adapters of McEwan's work must meet lies, essentially, in raising the dread. The director Joe Wright, working from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, passes this test quite brilliantly, for the first hour at least. The ominous tone of the novel is immediately suggested in the opening credits, tapped out on the clicking keys of a Corona typewriter.

It is there also in the patterning of shadow and light across the Victorian Gothic mansion where the first part is set, on a sweltering summer's day in 1935. And we surely read some of the trouble to come in the pursed, watchful face of Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), the 13-year-old daughter of the house's owners, a prissy miss who fights boredom by writing a play and dragooning her cousins into the staging of it.

It's too bad then that the cousins capriciously abandon the play and its outraged author. Briony, her adolescent head aswirl with half-understood desires and prejudices, seeks another subject to feed her imagination, and finds one with calamitous consequences. She spies her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) in an argument with Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of the estate's housekeeper and, obeying her own storytelling instincts, she fatally misinterprets their relationship. There are echoes here of the Losey/Pinter adaptation of the LP Hartley novel, The Go-Between (1970), in which a child's interference (in another heat-struck English country house) spells doom for a pair of class-crossed lovers.

This, however, is much the stronger of the two, more delicate in its nuances and more vivid in its psychological complexity. The way that Wright replays two key scenes from different perspectives skilfully underscores the irony and heightens the tragedy. Ronan is superbly cast as mischief-making child whose innocence seems a kind of insanity, while Knightley and McAvoy are serviceable as swan and swain.

I've never been quite convinced by Knightley, and remain agnostic after this, but she looks the part to a brittle "T" and wears the clothes beautifully: the chartreuse evening dress is a bit of an event in itself. (Jacqueline Durran's costume designs are outstanding.)

On the margins, Briony's cousins, hilarious ginger twin boys with a sister who's Violet Elizabeth Bott to the life, are a visually witty delight, and as the confectionery heir Marshall, Benedict Cumberbatch mixes the suave with the sinister to brief but memorable effect: the "chocolate cocktail" he makes for Cecilia and her brother (Patrick Kennedy) is perhaps emblematic of the childhood/adulthood divide that the story keeps probing.

So compelling is this first section that what follows, while confidently handled by Wright and Hampton, seems a little underpowered in comparison. The action, shifting five years on to May 1940 and the BEF's inglorious retreat to Dunkirk, finds Robbie wounded but determined to make it back to England and to Cecilia.

The linking scene in a London tea-room where the lovers meet after their cruel interruption is a lovely miniature, a Brief Encounter of clipped tenderness and regret, but Robbie's exhausted footslog through northern France marks the point at which the film's choke-hold on us begins to loosen.

It's odd, because this middle section contains the most remarkable passages of McEwan's book, a fugue-like account of desperate survival amid strafing from German planes and the open-air slaughterhouse of the retreat. Wright does one terrific thing here, a flowing steadicam shot involving thousands of extras on the beach at Dunkirk (it was actually shot in Redcar) that encompasses the almost surreal chaos of an army routed and waiting for rescue; in the background you notice the Ferris wheel and the bombed-out buildings, in the foreground are drunken squaddies, cavalrymen shooting their horses and mechanics spiking their vehicles to render them useless.

It's bravura film-making, self-conscious perhaps, but impressive withal. Even the hymn that a chorus of soldiers sings on the ruined bandstand is carefully chosen – "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind", whose first line ("...forgive our foolish ways") chimes appropriately with the central theme.

This is meticulously done, though the remainder of the Dunkirk sequences and the switch to Briony's baptism of fire as a nurse in a London hospital pack a far smaller emotional punch than I recall from the novel. There are good things still: Romola Garai ably incarnates the 18-year-old Briony (and looks bravely plain in doing so) and Daniel Mays as Robbie's cockney companion on the road to Dunkirk has absolutely the right demeanour for the period. You feel there are many scenes and moments that Wright has taken pains over, and you admire him for it.

All the same, I feel unable to swell the wave of hysterical press notices that have been acclaiming the film as a masterpiece and an "instant classic" – whatever that is. The literary conceit that seals the story, with the ageing Briony's look back in anguish, is completely unconvincing, as it was in the novel. The explanation of how Briony (played now by Vanessa Redgrave) attempted to "atone" for the ruinous folly of that day in 1935 actually makes her look quite as self-absorbed as she was in her youth. "I gave them a happy ending..." she says, but the catharsis that the film has been building towards is conspicuously absent.

Let's be grateful for an intelligent, handsome adaptation of a McEwan novel – rare in itself – and praise a young director with visual ambition and a way with actors. But let's not burden him with the hopes of the British film industry just yet.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss