I finally gave in and watched the movie version of Ian McEwan’s unbelievably good novel.   I put it off for a long time because I was afraid if I didn’t like the movie, it would ruin the book for me.  Well, here’s my summary:

Somebody had a train to catch.  Then they caught it.  It was a very slow train, carrying too many cliches.

The director inexplicably raced through the first act like an empty parking lot.  It seems like he just wanted to get to that much-praised long tracking shot of the beach at Dunkirk as fast as possible.  Not only did he sprint from scene to scene, he had the actors sprinting through each scene.  There was no time for any emotional development.  It ended up turning the whole first act — the first third of the book — into the world’s longest prologue.

I realize you have to make compromises to turn a novel into a film, time being the biggest one.  But the director (and screenwriter, I guess) chose the wrong compromises.  The whole first act of the novel has a very languid feel.  It’s summer break.  Everyone’s home from college and bored.  It’s hot (for England).  The house is muggy.  The kitchens are stifling.  Nobody’s doing anything quickly.

Except in the movie.  There, everybody does everything quickly.  People march down hallways like Grant advancing on Vicksburg.  Even small movements like picking up items from a dresser or brushing hair are done at breakneck speed.

The way to shorten the first act of this book isn’t to rush through everything, it’s to do more with less: fewer scenes, more development in each.  Seems like they figured that out when they got to the second act — the Dunkirk section — because they suddenly slowed to a crawl.  That section of the book does move slowly, but not that slowly, and certainly not that much slower than the first section.

I also didn’t care for the gauzy halos in the first act, but that’s very minor by comparison.  Actually, I didn’t care for any of the photographic effects in the movie.

The one excellent thing about the first act — about the whole movie, really — was the actress who played Briony.  She was terrific.  Not at all how I pictured Briony, but a terrific little actress.  And the young woman who picks up the role in the 2nd act looks remarkably like her, which makes for a nice continuity.

It’s hard to know if Knightley and McAvoy’s performances were so mechanical because of the assembly-line direction, or if they just weren’t up to the job.  The second act provides a good clue, though.  Even once the pace slowed, Knightley still wasn’t able to convey any depth or emotion.  McAvoy improved noticeably.

The third act was very good, I thought.  It’s short and to the point in both the book and the movie, and the woman who plays Briony is excellent; Maggie Smith-like.

The screenplay is pretty bad, though.  He introduced all sorts of cliches — dialog, actions, and plot.  Poor Ian McEwan.

I guess it’s pretty clear at this point that I didn’t care for the movie.  OTOH, it won’t ruin the book for me, because it’s just so different from the book.  So we end on a happy note.



12 Responses to “Atonement”

  1. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks for watching the movie for me. I won’t bother now.

  2. urbino Says:

    I thought you saw it back around the time C-Love did.

  3. urbino Says:

    “It ended up turning the whole first act — the first third of the book — into the world’s longest prologue.”

    Better would be, “It ended up turning the whole first act — the first third of the book — into the world’s longest opening montage.”

  4. alsturgeon Says:

    Nah. Kinda wanted to, out of simple curiosity since the book was SO good. Just never did.

  5. mrspeacock Says:

    As you know, I loved the movie. I’m sure a huge part of that is due to my not having read the book before I saw it. It never occurred to me that the first section was moving too slowly because I didn’t have a point of reference. I saw the speed as an insight into young Briony’s mind and an indication of how quickly things can go awry.

    Young Briony was brilliant (and I believe she got nominated for an Oscar), and James McAvoy was great as well.

    I read the book after seeing the movie, so of course I picked up on the differences, but I actually thought it was a pretty close adaptation.

  6. urbino Says:

    I didn’t remember you having loved the movie, C-Love. I thought you said it was okay. Didn’t mean to seem like I was flaming you. You know more about movie stuff than I do, anyway; I’m just critiquing it as a fan of the book.

    But “loved”? Really? 🙂

  7. jazzbumpa Says:

    I am not familiar with either the book or the movie.

    This review is an interesting counterpoint to yours.

    Briony is portrayed sequentially by Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave.

    JzB the

  8. jazzbumpa Says:

    . . . unable to complete a thought trombonist

  9. urbino Says:


    Okay, here’s my quickity-quick take on the NYT review (mostly just to amuse myself):

    Two characters make significant use of a typewriter — one is an aspiring playwright, the other a yearning rural swain — but the sound of the machine is co-opted by Dario Marianelli, who wrote the movie’s score

    Agree. I forgot to mention that I liked the use of the typewriter sound.

    This is not a bad literary adaptation


    “Atonement” is, instead, an almost classical example of how pointless, how diminishing, the transmutation of literature into film can be.


    The respect that Mr. Wright and Mr. Hampton show to Mr. McEwan is no doubt gratifying to him, but it is fatal to their own project.

    Wow. I’m no NYT reviewer, but I have read the novel 4 times and . . . just, wow. I’m just sayin’, you know, wow.

    “Atonement” fails to be anything more than a decorous, heavily decorated and ultimately superficial reading of the book

    Agree. But how you can say they showed too much respect for McEwan’s work in one sentence, and in the next sentence say they made a superficial reading of McEwan’s work, I dunno. No comprendo.

    Briony (played at 13 by the remarkably poised Saoirse Ronan — pronounced SEER-Sha)


    the film’s treatment of the war has a detached, secondhand feeling

    True, but the same is true of the book, IMO. That’s always been my least favorite section.

    Mr. McAvoy and Ms. Knightley sigh and swoon credibly enough

    The author and I must have different real life experiences of sighing and swooning.

    but they are stymied by the inertia of the filmmaking, and by the film’s failure to find a strong connection between the fates of the characters and the ideas and historical events that swirl around them.

    Agreed. And, along the lines of one of the reviewer’s other comments, the director seems more interested in saying, “Hey! Look at me directing!,” instead of telling the story. Not at all unlike Al Pacino’s acting over the past . . . 10? 15 years?

  10. jazzbumpa Says:

    Now, THAT is counterpoint!

  11. mrspeacock Says:

    Yes, loved! But I didn’t take your review as a shot to me. I do agree with NYT about the detached portrayal of the war. That was my least favorite part of the film. But I particularly loved the first section of the film (which you liked the least!). Ah, well.

  12. urbino Says:

    I agree about the war part, too.

    If I knew anything about movies, we could be the new Siskel & Ebert.

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