Re-reading Ian McEwan's Atonement last weekend, my first thought was: I hope to God that Joe Wright — whose broadly grinning Pride & Prejudice made a mess of Jane Austen two years ago — doesn't screw up this wonderful novel about lust, love, loss, and what art can do to life. My second was: What on earth is screenwriter Christopher Hampton going to do with all those runaway subordinate clauses?
No worries: McEwan may rank with Austen as literature's leading exponent of psychological realism, but it's not his profusion of descriptive detail or densely constructed characters that have turned this most eggheaded of writers into such a hot movie property over the years. It's McEwan's Gothic side — his weakness for building borderline-vicarish moral introspection around a moment of flamboyant horror or black comedy — that put Andrew Birkin's adaptation of The Cement Garden (1994, evil twins run amok), Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers (1991, torturer on the loose), John Schlesinger's The Innocent (1995, Cold War wicked siren) and Roger Michell's Enduring Love (2004, hot-air balloon fatality), the only decent adaptation of the sorry bunch, into movie theaters.
The tipping point in Atonement is only slightly less melodramatic: an unnerving act of false witness-bearing that alters the fate of a snobby rural British family on a hot summer day in 1935 and thrusts its younger generation into a world war, one of whose casualties will be the centuries of class privilege. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (played in the movie by a slightly tubercular-looking Saoirse Ronan) is a budding playwright, equipped with more adjectives than insight, who witnesses two counts of what she takes to be the ravishing of her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) by the housecleaner's son Robbie (James McAvoy), a working-class boy made good by his own intelligence and the noblesse oblige of Tallis père. When a purported child rape takes place elsewhere on the grounds of the Tallises' hideously ornate mansion (enchantingly, this clan of jumped-up nobles made its fortune in padlocks), Briony tells a lie that, together with the coming war, will ruin more lives than her own.
Picture the fastidiously literary McEwan at a pitch meeting, holding his nose. Then picture Wright talking the talk with his unerringly commercial radar for what will fly across the Atlantic, and you'll grasp the abyss between Atonement, the unobtrusively dark novel, and Atonement, the palatable movie. Wright wouldn't recognize unobtrusive if it tapped him on the nose — he's cross-pollinated the first half of Atonement into an Oscar-buzzy brew of Masterpiece Theatre and Upstairs, Downstairs, with the wild English countryside tamed into an artfully lit fairy glade, and into just enough of a bodice-ripper to reel in the youth market. And not a bad one at that. For once in her life, Knightley is shrewdly cast as a brittle flapper with womanly potential, and McAvoy — nicely underplaying the innocent carnality that will drop Robbie into the hottest water of his inexperienced young life — props up this beautiful but lightly gifted actress with all the chemistry she needs, while offering a fresh-faced contrast to the slimy visiting chocolate tycoon (the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch), for whom he takes a tragic fall.
At his best, McEwan is a master at slyly weaving the general through the particular, and opening one point of view into another. Briony's rite of passage — a journey through emergent sexuality and the hubris of youth into maturity as a novelist and a chastened adulthood — folds itself onto the broader canvas of World War II. McEwan and Hampton, who has done a serviceable job of pruning the writer's billowing prose into dialogue, both grew up under the shadow of that war, in which Briony (now played by a soulful Romola Garai) and the lovers she has so carelessly thwarted encounter at first hand the shattered myths of heroism — and worse. Wright, much younger and evidently a sucker for old Hollywood movies, has turned the novel's second half into a cheap knockoff of a 1940s war movie, complete with rapid-fire patrician dialogue and war-is-hell set pieces of smoking battlefields and wounded grunts expiring all over France.
Where McEwan whispers, Wright shouts. In all the clang and clamor of an operatic soundtrack overlaid with the rhythmic thud of typewriter keys and the drumbeats of war, McEwan's deepest and most thrilling theme — of how fiction atones for life (and sometimes doesn't) — falls by the wayside. Which may be why Vanessa Redgrave, in a wholly invented coda as Briony's ailing older self, gets the thankless task of explaining to us why Atonement is her most autobiographical novel. And why Robbie and Cecilia, who deserve better, find themselves trapped in a drippy Hallmark card, snuggling on a windswept beach. Forever sepia.