Between Reviews: Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Pages?

Posted on March 22, 2008


Picture courtesy:


MAR 23, 2008 – THERE’S AN ENORMOUS, FIVE-MINUTE TRACKING SHOT bang in the middle of Atonement, where the camera unblinkingly, untiringly takes in the sights of The Battle of Dunkirk on behalf of Robbie (James McAvoy): a parasol planted on the sand, a delicate reminder of a time these environs were home to nothing more than an aimless day on the beach; then a sharp contrast, a military vehicle on fire, and a few yards away, a line of horses being shot so that the Germans can’t get hold of them; the sun valiantly trying to shine down on a beached ship through a haze of wartime smog, a man atop the mast crying, “I’m coming home,” as ragged sails flutter listlessly; troops, troops, troops everywhere; a soldier exercising on a pommel horse, then more soldiers on a merry-go-round, perhaps wishing they could be children again; a woman silently comforting another, propped motionless against her; sandbags, sandbags, sandbags; two men tumbling down the sands in a fight, terrible proof that it’s not just the Germans that are inflaming passions; a choir in a gazebo performing an a cappella rendition of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, the voices rising and falling in sync with a 360-degree camera glide, a heartbreaking moment of grace, of beauty, in the midst of the sordidness around; whooping, high-spirited soldiers on horses, spurring their steeds on a race to nowhere; and a ferris wheel behind it all, quietly going about its circumnavigatory business, unconcerned by the follies of men far below.

A portion of the audience is sure to go, “Oh, what a shot!” Others may be appropriately awestruck at the jaw-dropping logistics that went into its making, while simultaneously dismissing the self-consciousness of the technique, questioning the need to pull us out of the intimacy of the rest of the narrative with an admittedly gorgeous piece of technical showboating. But only those who’ve read the novel on which the film is based will see that this showboating is entirely of a piece with Ian McEwan’s writing – that this sequence is at once utterly redundant and utterly necessary to capture the spirit of the book, which is itself a series of passages that are at once utterly redundant (when it comes to keeping the plot machinery well-oiled and moving forward) and utterly necessary (in view of the larger concerns of the novel). This sequence, a celebration of cinematic technique, is the closest the film gets to imbibing the spirit of the novel, which, of course, is a celebration of writing technique – and not just in the way that a good writer (with his choice of words, with his inventions, his architecture) can make you almost unbearably happy. More than anything, Atonement, the novel, is something of a stunt – a somewhat unsatisfying read for the most part, until the end that reveals why the read so far has been so unsatisfying. It is a novel that questions the nature of writing, the need for happy endings, the triumph of uplifting fiction over depressing fact.

Now how do you shape this into a film? You can try to replicate the plot – the repercussions of lovers Robbie and Cecilia (Keira Knightley) being torn apart when Briony (Saoirse Ronan, who plays Cecilia’s sister, the budding writer who tells this story) accuses Robbie of raping a cousin – but how do you capture the fact that the novel involves, among other things, a first-rate author (McEwan) channelling a second-rate writer’s (Briony) style, with long, long passages where nothing happens (a fact self-reflexively underlined by McEwan, when he acknowledges that “the crystalline present moment” may be a worthy subject in itself, but “such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement”). Do you make a deliberately amateurish film, with Briony’s reckless adjectives finding substitution in attention-grabbing jump-cuts and stock-colour changes? But that would baffle those who’ve not read the novel, who’d think this is really rank-bad filmmaking and not just a simulation of it. And even if that problem were somehow solved, how would a film address the very literary concern of the writer as creator, and therefore God? The beautiful conceit of Briony’s inability to seek atonement for her wrongs through the writing of her novel – because there is no higher power than herself she can seek absolution from – is impossible to transfer to screen, and almost as difficult to put into images as the nagging question of authorship that drove the novel: Briony-the-author versus McEwan-the-author.

There’s a moment in the film that explicitly addresses these frustrations of adaptation, when Briony confesses to being worried about the success of the play she’s written for her brother Leon. “Perhaps I should have written Leon a story,” she says. “If you write a story, you only have to say the word ‘castle,’ and you could see the towers and the woods and the village below, but in a play, it’s… It all depends on other people.” And it’s the same with a movie. It all depends on how these other collaborators put together the final visuals from what were once merely verbal constructions, or at most, shapeless shapes inside our heads. Besides, the novel’s abrupt changes of scene and tone – now a country mansion, now a war zone – are intentionally meant to leave us dangling, frustrated, whereas the nature of mainstream cinema demands that, at the very least, a coherent narrative be created in the conventional template of a love story. And so we have a big star as Cecilia, which may make audiences think they’re in for a Keira Knightley romance, when actually, Briony and Robbie are the main characters, the cause and the effect. In a love story, typically, we experience the action through the characters in love, but here, it’s through Briony, a third person. In other words, the story she’s telling (through McEwan; or rather, the story that he’s telling through her) isn’t necessarily a truthful recounting of what really happened between Cecilia and Robbie. (Were Cecilia and Robbie in love at all, or was it just a sexual fling that would have melted away over time, and which was imagined as love by the hyper-romantic Briony?) Of course, it’s a director’s prerogative to shuffle around with the weight of characters, but that’s, in essence, to miss the point – and mislead the viewer. All that said, however, Atonement is about as good a film of an unfilmable novel as you could hope for – in the sense that you may wonder why they had to pick this book, but having come to terms with that, it’s impossible not to be moved when, at a movie theatre, Robbie wanders behind the screen flickering with the gigantic image of lovers in liplock and buries his face in his hands, as if bemoaning the cruelty of a world that hasn’t just separated him from his loved one but is now rubbing its hand in glee reminding him of the fact. The unabashed swell of emotion here, the sheer movie-movieness of this moment, finally, is film’s revenge on the novel.

Copyright ©2008 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Between Reviews