Atonement, the Movie


vanessa redgrave is incandescent in the movie based on ian mcewan‘s novel.

i’m incredibly damn picky about films adapted from novels, especially novels i adored. (case in point: LOVED ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, HATED the merchant-ivory film based on it.) ATONEMENT is that rare film i can say actually matches or in some cases, surpasses in its way the achievement of the novel it’s based on.

the film isn’t without a few slow spots. there’s a long sequence of WWII that wanders and drags a bit, bravely propped up by james mcavoy’s performance. it has an unusual pattern of circling back to contrast events perceived from the main character Briony’s point of view and then the omniscient pov, mimicking how we experience recriminations. but all in all, the film does an admirable job of manifesting what’s otherwise deeply interior work: perception and memory.

if you’ve missed ian mcewan’s beautiful novel of regret, consequences, and mercy, after you see the film adaptation you might be inspired to re-experience the story as it was originally told.

in ATONEMENT, a “fanciful” and bookish young girl on the brink of womanhood witnesses two things she doesn’t completely understand: the genuine spark of sexual desire between lovers, and the terrible perversion of desire an adult inflicts on a child. when they become confused in her mind, she acts in such a way as to drive apart the lovers and allow the adult to continue preying upon the child. the realization, as she matures, the magnitude of her mistake–made irrevocable by the losses of the second world war–haunts her as relentlessly as memory and imagination will allow. her atonement for that past, to “tell it with no lies, no embellishments, and no adjectives” is a self-imposed commandment she tries her entire life to carry out. will telling the absolute truth absolve, or is it in its own way a “pitiless” endeavor?


the entire novel, and now the film, is a celebration of the writer. in this case, a woman writer. when emily dickinson urged us to “tell it slant” she hinted that the road to truth might be indirect, that, like looking at the sun, it might be safest to temper its power by looking at its reflection, as with a pinhole camera. in fact, it might only be possible to glimpse what we can through the limitations of our own subjectivity, the aperture further stopped down by, in briony’s case, her age and class.

what i think is so fascinating about mcewan’s novel, and what’s preserved in the film, is its exploration of the darker, uglier sides to being a writer. the compulsion to re-tell and re-shape according to one’s own perception and at the cost of those you observe. mining someone else’s life for the depth, drama, grand passions, or meaning that’s lacking in your own. the liabilities of “fancifulness”–being mistaken, or worse yet, believing that the writer in observing life can have the same all-knowingness as an omniscient narrator in a story. underestimating the consequences of telling and the virtues of uncertainty. and of course, believing so absolutely in your truth that you are unaware of the necessity for mercy, kindness, and the consolations of rationalization. i’d be more specific, but that would spoil the film.

let’s just say that vanessa redgrave does more acting in the time she appears in the film than most actors do in their lifetime. and if you haven’t read the novel and aren’t sure what the film’s about, her performance will have that much more of an impact on you.

Vanessa Redgrave as Briony Tallis in ATONEMENT

Now For the Ooooh Movie Stars Portion of the Post

somehow i got on the mailing list for these very posh premieres thrown by Focus Features, the “arty” division of Universal. it started with LUST, CAUTION and that was wonderful, because there probably aren’t too many theatres in america that can rival the academy of motion pictures arts and sciences–AMPAS–for picture and sound quality. altogether very plush, and how often do you get to sit in a theatre where the screen is flanked by two gleaming 25′ high oscar statues? it’s all very temple-like and awe-inspiring.

anyway, it’s a mystery to me how i got on this mailing list or how i stay on it (we’ll see if i get any more invitations). now that i’ve confessed my secret to the interwebs, i hope the clerical error where i’m supposed to be deleted from the guest list doesn’t get discovered.

if you’ll indulge me a bit longer i’ll give you some impressions of what it’s like to attend. parking in LA is ridiculously hard, and in beverly hills there’s an extra-punitive aspect because you see plenty of neighborhood curbside parking but of course, it’s all tightly regulated by permits. so in case you think a little late-night street parky won’t be noticed…well, for sure some resident is going to call the city’s tow-truck on your presumptuous little ass. all of which is to say, we neophyte premiere-attenders (HB and me) rush around having to find a garage that’s open and as a consequence, barely have enough time to hustle down the sidewalk to AMPAS. the old hands already have the best, cheapest, least-crowded garages sussed out and know to go there immediately.

when you approach, you’ll see about 25 fans screaming behind a red velvet rope, tons of security guards, and a big plastic temporary hallway that’s warmed with bright lights. after you pick up your ticket at the sidewalk “will call” area, you try to enter the theatre, but it just so happens someone far more beautiful and better-dressed than you will be having their picture taken on the red carpet. did i mention the photographers? one or two might be dressed to the nines, but most of them are men and so therefore look shlubby. they’re packed like sardines because there aren’t that many good angles to shoot pictures. a few might have license to wander around, but they seem to travel as a herd, in general. note, these aren’t paparazzi–these are professional photographers for magazines and the trades who are authorized to be there and there’s no shoving or pushing, just the flash going off in people’s faces.

we got stuck behind a little clot of people gathered around keira knightly. she was wearing a beautiful peach colored dress, cocktail length, with a sort of bejewelled flower clasp/brooch on her right breast. she has broad, bony shoulders and looks painfully thin. gorgeous pale skin. i’m not a fan of the trend going around now of the heavy, straight cut bangs that keira and katie holmes-cruise and the often slatternly-looking bai ling sport. but that’s what her hair looked like.

i saw james mcavoy, her co-star, briefly on the stairs next to us as we descended toward the lobby and the hors d’oeuvres afterwards (which we always, annoyingly, have to skip due to babysitting ending or parking garage supposedly closing). had we stuck around longer afterwards i would’ve liked to have seen for myself what macavoy’s hands look like (while reaching for an hors d’oeuvres)–i thought in the movie his dirt-seamed, nail-bitten gardener’s hands beautifully conveyed his character. mcavoy’s speech has a brogue or burr of some kind that’s very charming, and unexpected given his rather straightforward british accent in the film. note to self: ladies and gentlemen, I THINK IT’S CALLED ACTING.

so this evening at AMPAS, james schamus* stood up and said some lovely and thoughtful words about the producers of the film, the producers got up and said some appropriately droll and self-deprecatingly funny things about themselves and praiseworthy things about the director (joe wright), who then got up and said charming and warm things about the actors, who all filed up on stage.

they sat down, and the film began.

afterwards we shuffled out, marveling at vanessa redgrave’s beautiful work, and i spotted one or two distinctive-looking screenwriters and there were obviously many more heavy hitters attending who were executives and agents but whose likenesses i’m blissfully ignorant of. i speculated that the writer’s strike is freeing up quite a few people’s time, as by evening writers are done picketing and overall forbidden from writing anything but new spec work, and executives may or may not have anything to do as it’s all projects that are well into the pipeline that they have to work on–there’s no new material coming in. and we went home.

* yes, please, i would like to be james schamus, writing and collaborating with insanely talented people, and producing the best, most interesting and art form-stretching films: also a PhD from berkeley’s english department, he’s my proof that there’s life after graduate school. a damn good life. and a place for literacy in this world.

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4 thoughts on “Atonement, the Movie

  1. i can’t wait to see this. i, too, have trouble with books made into movies. i have a vision in my head, what i think the writer’s vision is. and it knocks me flat when the movie twists that.

    you articulated something i think about all the time — the idea that, as writers, we twist other’s realities into tales — their realities as we see it, as we dramatize it, as we manouver truths into them. i often wonder, as i sit here, writing my second novel (and revamping my first) whether karma will kick my ass for this. whether someone, somewhere, will see themselves in this and presume i stole a piece of them for this. (that is, of course, assuming either ever gets published.)

    anyway, love redgrave. lovelovelove her.

  2. wreke,
    i knew there was a novelist in you somewhere! :)

    regarding the ethics of storytelling…what i came away with after watching ATONEMENT was how there’s both courage and cowardice in telling the truth. for Briony, could she bear to tell the story that also showed *her* vanities, *her* pettiness, *her* arrogance and failings to an equal degree as she portrayed those flaws in others?

    i’ve had one person write about me in deliberately unflattering ways and in part i became a writer myself in self-defense. i laid a trap: that person got to read an undisguised warts-and-all depiction of him/herself (which, if all had been aboveboard, said person should’ve had no business reading). since then i’ve noticed an attempt on that person’s behalf to sort his/her own shit out and quit mining me or my life for material. TEND TO YOUR OWN PLOT OR YOU’LL END UP BURIED IN MINE–i guess the message got through. ;)

    and in the end i don’t believe the sole function of writing is to hold up ugly mirrors to one another to shut each other down.

    my thoughts have yet to completely evolve on this, but the experience taught me that you can cling to your version of the truth in telling your story, but fair play demands that you encourage others to tell their truth, their stories, as they see it. everyone has the right to the validity of what they know. whether it’s good or bad in the absolute is another question for wiser heads than mine. but ya dish it out, ya gotta take it too.

    so i guess i’d have to say there’s a spiritual dimension to writing after all. what do you think?

  3. I also loved what you had to say about the dark side of writers. Thanks for the wonderful, well-balanced review. You convinced me to get my butt to the theater for sure.

  4. Pingback: I Promised You Bastards, Polygamy, and Deadly Queen Bees « P i l l o w b o o k

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