Monday, 22 April 2013

Atonement: The Burden of Distorted Truth

Life isn’t easy and growing up is even less. We all make mistakes on the way, but luckily only few of them have serious consequences, even worse if we did it knowingly and we aren’t forgiven. Sometimes, however, we trigger events that make us regret what we did for the rest of our lives. The English writer Ian McEwan told such a tragic story in his bestselling novel Atonement that first came out in 2001 and won several important literary awards.

Director Joe Wright (known for his screen adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina) turned the novel into a much acclaimed film of the same name in 2007. The following year Atonement was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama and it was nominated for seven Oscars, but only won Dario Marianelli the one for Best Original Score.

The story of Atonement revolves around the events that 13-year-old Briony Tallis (played by Saoirse Ronan) witnesses on the family’s country estate on a hot summer day of 1935. From her bedroom window she sees the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (played by James McAvoy), who the girl has a crush on, and her older sister Cecilia Tallis (played by Keira Knightley) having a quarrel. The girl doesn’t know what it is about and takes the erotic tension that she senses between the two for aggression. Later that day Robbie asks Briony to take a letter to her sister Cecilia. Being curious and seeking adult inspiration for her childish phantasies the girl opens the envelope and is disgusted by the blunt wording of the love letter. At the same time she is jealous. When Briony comes down for the family dinner and peeps through a crack of the door into the library, she surprises her sister and Robbie having sex. Once more she misreads the situation. She is confused because she thinks that Robbie hurts her sister. There is no time, however, to talk with her. During dinner it turns out that their twin cousins have run away and the whole party goes out to look for them. Briony searches alone in the woods and is almost run over by a man, before she stumbles across her 15-year-old cousin Lola (played by Juno Temple) who has been attacked by him. Lola is under shock and says that she doesn’t know who the man was, but Briony with her memory of the day still vivid jumps to the conclusion that it must have been Robbie. She also wants it to have been him because she is jealous. Cecilia doesn’t believe that he is guilty for one moment, but everybody else does. The police arrests Robbie and in due course he is sent to prison.

Five years later, during the war, 18-year-old Briony (played by Romola Garai) becomes a nurse like her sister Cecilia who is living in London. As it turns out, Cecilia has broken up with the family and has refused to talk to Briony ever since she made the false accusations against Robbie who was released from prison under the condition that he joined the army. Cecilia and Robby are married and Briony wants to apologize, but the visit doesn’t go as she imagined.

At the age of 77 Briony (played by Vanessa Redgrave) is a renowned writer and presents her latest novel in a TV interview. It is meant to make amends for her wrong in a surprising way.

When I saw the film Atonement, I already knew the novel and had enjoyed the read very much. More often than not I’ve been disappointed in similar cases. Screen adaptations seldom can compete with the books that they are based on, but Joe Wright did a good job capturing the essence of Ian McEwan’s Atonement into motion pictures. Of course, there are important details missing and it goes without saying that it was impossible to include the best description of a migraine that I ever came across in a book. However, everybody who likes handsome pictures that breathe the atmosphere of an upper-class summer day in the 1930s will enjoy the film. I passed pleasant 123 minutes watching it, and yet, I liked the novel better.

For all those who prefer reading, too:



  1. I never have the expectation that a movie will be able to compare to the book. That being said, I'm thrilled when the essence of the story has been captured effectively.

    1. Usually, I try not to watch films based on books that I know already because it's a disappointing experience to see so much of the original text being left out (inevitably), even scenes that I considered important. It's true, however, that you can't really expect to get more than the essence of the story.
      On the other hand, several films made me read the novels or short stories that they were based on... and usually, I used to like the written story better.
      Thanks for the feedbacke Joanne Marie


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