The movie of Ian McEwan's Atonement is faithful to the book, yet although it is beautiful, well acted, and ultimately moving, is like a kind of Cole's Notes version. In her review, lidocafe, with whom I saw the movie yesterday, wrote that she missed the density of McEwan's work and a sense of a narrator. I think McEwan's narrator or narrators, in truth, are replaced by a filmic narration. You could feel the director pulling the strings, placing clues for us, saying "look here!" "feel this!" If the narrative effects of the novel had been wholly replaced by filmic effects, as in The English Patient, the movie might have been as much of a masterpiece as its original. What I missed was the sense of being lost in the work, of disappearing into another world, another time. The elements in the movie - from the opening shot of a house that is revealed to be a doll's house, which morphs into a "real" country house, to the staccato sound of a typewriter blending with the score, to the jerky, looping time lines - that attempted to capture the metafictional qualities of the novel, had the effect for me of distancing me from the movie. I kept being pulled in and then jerked out again. For this reason, the ending, though moving, was less affective than in the book, where it is devastating. It's impossible to say whether the movie would have more or less power for those who have not read the book. My own feeling is that it might be very confusing without the prior knowledge brought from the novel.
All that being said, it is a very beautiful movie, and has its own power. The long tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk is brilliant and memorable, not just for its technical prowess but for the surreal vision that it presents of the battle. This was a sequence in which the true power of film-making came to the fore, the one place where I felt the director's vision equalled or surpassed McEwan's. The acting is all very good; I was particularly impressed by James McAvoy and by the girl who plays Briony as a child. Kiera Knightley is adequate - as lidocafe said afterwards, at least she didn't smirk too much. She didn't have much to do, beyond look beautiful and tragic. I was distracted by the bones of her hips and her almost sunken chest. Far be it from me, who has been at most a B cup all my life, to make snide remarks about another woman's inadequacy in that department, but perhaps the flimsy garments she was wearing highlighted her anorexic skinniness. Vanessa Redgrave appears at the end, luminous and deeply intelligent, conveying in her sad eyes the depth of the tragedy. Her presence brings weight and power to the end of the movie.
Ian McEwan's vision is dark, but founded on a remarkable depth of understanding of humanity, and an ability to convey the nuances of life, both social and interior. This movie, for all its strengths, did not quite capture the depths of McEwan's vision.