Atonement & The Golden Compass

Atonement & The Golden Compass featured image

by Marc Glassman

Atonement. Joe Wright, director. Christopher Hampton, script based on the novel by Ian McEwan. Starring: James McAvoy (Robbie Turner), Keira Knightley (Cecilia Tallis), Saoirse Ronan (Briony Tallis, age 13), Romola Garai (Briony, age 18), Vanessa Redgrave (Briony, age 76), Brenda Blethyn (Grace Turner), Juno Temple (Lola Quincey)

The Golden Compass. Chris Weitz, director and script based on the novel by Philip Pullman. Starring: Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra), Nicole Kidman (Marisa Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Ben Walker (Roger, Lyra’s best friend), Eva Green (Serafina), Jim Carter (John Faa, Gyptian King), Ian McKellen (voice of polar bear Iorek Byrnison), Ian McShane (voice of Ragnar Sturlusson), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel)


I met the brilliant British novelist Ian McEwan once. He came into my bookshop Pages with his Canadian publisher Louise Dennys when the controversial novel A Child in Time, about the kidnapping of a three-year, was on the bestsellers’ list. I complimented him on the book, of course. McEwan smiled and with a bantering look that seemed simultaneously conspiratorial and self-effacing, he said, “looks as if we’ve gotten away with another one.”

McEwan has never been one to shy away from controversy or, until the recent novel Saturday, tragedy. Besides kidnapping, he’s dealt with incest (The Cement Garden), murderous obsession (Enduring Love) and the psychology of fascism (The Innocent, Black Dogs). Before he began winning awards thanks to his exceptional style and narrative skills, he was known in London literary circles as “Ian Macabre.”

With Atonement, McEwan worked through a number of his fascinations: childhood, innocence, evil, the Second World War, the decline of Imperial England, and the improbability of romance. It’s one of his most impressive novels and like Enduring Love, The Cement Garden and The Innocent, has been made into an effective film.

Atonement revolves around the essential nature of storytelling. Can you tell the truth from what you see? Briony Tallis, an upper-class 13 year-old girl and budding writer, spots her sister Cecilia stripping off her outer clothes to plunge into a fountain on the hottest day of the summer of 1935. Standing next to her is Robbie Turner, the servant’s son, who was sponsored to Cambridge along with Cecilia, by Mr. Tallis, who is a British Cabinet Minister. Cecilia appears to be angry with Robbie and, putting on her clothes, storms off, away from him.

Later that afternoon, Robbie approaches Briony with a note, which he asks her to deliver to Cecilia. Briony agrees but reads the letter before delivering it to her sister. The contents, quite shocking for Depression era Britain, offer a rude suggestion that would resolve Robbie’s conflict with Cecilia. Naturally, Briony is horrified; the neighborhood boy with whom she’d had a childhood crush seems to her to be a “sex maniac.”

Cecilia’s reaction is quite different. When Robbie shows up, contrite—he had written a polite apology that had been left by mistake on his desk—Cecilia takes him to the family library. There, they begin to make love. For Cecilia, the wrong note had been the right one: in a flash, she had realized that her on-going anger with Robbie was due to her suppressed love for him.

Just at the wrong moment, Briony walks in, disturbing the passionate scene, which she misinterprets as an aggressive act of lovemaking instigated by Robbie. When dinner is served, the Tallis family discover that their 9 year-old cousins have disappeared from the mansion. A search party is organized.

Again, Briony sees something but, in this case, she willfully misunderstands the situation. Lola, the 15 year-old sister of the missing children, is seen by Briony being raped, or at least violently attacked, by a man. Briony’s flashlight startles the man, who quickly disappears.

Briony is sure that Lola’s attacker is Robbie. Of course, it isn’t—but the note, with the lewd reference to Cecilia’s private parts, and Briony’s adamant testimony are enough to send Robbie to prison.

This is the act for which Briony attempts to atone throughout the rest of the book–and director Joe Wright’s new, faithfully rendered film, which stars James McAvoy as Robbie, Keira Knightley as Cecilia and Saroise Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave as Briony at, respectively, ages 13, 18 and 76.

Atonement jumps from the summer of 1935 to a much different June, five years later. It traces the trajectory of the three main characters, Briony, Cecilia and Robbie, through the calamitous events of 1940 when the British had to retreat from France at Dunkirk. For McEwan’s exceptionally well written account of that tragic time, Wright has created a brilliant 6-minute tracking shot that encapsulates the denouement of Britain’s and France’s early involvement, and loss, in the War. Nor is the home front ignored. The horrifying and moving final moments of a soldier’s life, dying in the presence of a nurse—a now 18 year-old Briony—is effectively portrayed.

Joe Wright is a fine director of actors. Eschewing a naturalistic style, he asked his performers in the 1935 section to act as if they were movie stars from the ‘40s and ‘50s. It works wonderfully well, particularly with James McAvoy, who can be too cute if not controlled by a good director and Keira Knightley, who is beautiful but a limited actor. In fact, Knightley is so startlingly wonderful in this and in Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, that the two ought to consider working together again, soon. Clearly, they have a rapport that is exceptional.

Vanessa Redgrave as the old Briony, now a respected, dying novelist, brings an emotional impact to the end of the film. Atonement may be McEwan’s best novel, thanks to its shifting perspectives and bravura writing style. As a film, it is too intelligent, too “writerly,” to be as successful. Still, this is a very effective work, well acted, and easily the best adaptation of Ian McEwan’s exceptionally resonant novels.

The Golden Compass.

Pity Philip Pullman. At least a bit — though the author of The Golden Compass undoubtedly has a hefty bank account further enriched by sales of film rights to his books. But there’s always the judgment of history. What will the scholars make of the fantasy craze that has overtaken kids lit in the past two decades? Will Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, of which The Golden Compass is the first book, be considered a worthy rival of Rowling’s Harry Potter, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles? Or will it seem second rate and derivative?

Two things are certain. The film of The Golden Compass doesn’t have the excitement of the movie versions of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. And none of those books or films created the controversy that has dogged The Golden Compass since the Catholic Church caught wind of its anti-clerical stance. Indeed, with Catholics denouncing the film and book worldwide, one has to wonder whether making a cinematic adaptation of Pullman’s hit novel was a good idea at all.

Nonetheless, The Golden Compass has now hit the theatres, with a stellar cast including Nicole Kidman as the villainous Mrs. Coulter, Daniel Craig as mysterious hero Lord Asriel and such worthies as Ian McKellan, Sam Elliott, Kathy Bates and Christopher Lee in supporting roles. Taking the lead is young Dakota Blue Richards who plays Lyra, the brave girl who fights the authoritarian Magisterium, aka the Catholic Church, and its plan to conquer parallel universes since it already controls the world that Lyra lives in.

Like the Ring, Lyra comes armed with a Compass, though hers offers good magic, which reveals the truth behind everyone’s purpose. She starts out in a college much like Hogwarts but moves on quickly to the North where she meets her motley crew of supporters including the Gyptians (read Gypsies), a royal Polar Bear named Iorek Byrnison, a cowboy aeronaut named Scoresby and a witch queen, Serafina Pekkala.

They fight the Magisterium and its plotters including Mrs. Coulter and Fra Pavel. There’s lots of special effects, magical encounters and big battles throughout The Golden Compass. In fact, way too many. This film doesn’t breathe — at two hours, it’s not long enough to capture Pullman’s convoluted plot.

Those who haven’t read Pullman will be wondering: why is the Magisterium so controlling? Why do people walk around accompanied by animal-like daemons, who are also their souls? Why are the Gyptians and the witches on the side of Good and the universities and organized religion on the side of Evil?

The Golden Compass looks fantastic and some of the set pieces are marvelous. So are a number of the performances. Though the film isn’t as successful as it should be, it would be nice to see it becoming enough of a hit to spawn sequels. Surely, by the second or third film, the producers will capture Pullman’s magical tale properly for the screen.

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