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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas