I was lucky enough to attend a screening that had a talkback with screenwriter Christopher Hampton. In Hampton’s analysis, the movie can be divided into two halves. The first half is a “unity” – a playwriting term referencing the Aristotelian ideal of unity of time, place and action. The second half is its own three-act structure.

This first half is indeed ideal. I would not alter a frame of it. We watch a tragic series of misunderstandings between characters of the upper and lower castes on a country estate in England over one afternoon and evening. Director Joe Wright immediately signals this is not just another handsomely-appointed costume drama by including the sounds of a typewriter in the score, and by a jarring but ultimately effective recursive editing effect that allows us to see events from two perspectives.

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, as young people separated by class, are up to the task of filling long closeups with expressions of longing. It is Saoirse Ronan who plays Briony, the 13-year-old girl around whom the events of this first half turn, who steals the show. Petulant, deluded, innocent and imaginative, it is my great regret that, as the story leaps years forward, she is replaced by Romola Garai, who gives a much more internal performance.

According to Hampton, it was a two-plus year process to arrive at a structure that is ultimately almost identical to the novel from which the movie is adapted. I know they tried many other structures, but I wish they hadn’t settled quite the way they did on the back half of the story. The epic sweep of events seems telescoped, and Hampton admitted that budget considerations forced them to compress James McAvoy’s character’s war sojourn mostly into one, operatic long-take shot. (The shot is rightly praised, although there certainly is room for improvement in its blocking.) It is events back on the homefront that feel improperly dramatized.

Continue reading about Atonement (contains spoilers)…Partly because the first half of the movie was so good, and so elegantly paced, does the back half seem hurried and anemic. The meeting in the cafeteria between Robbie (McAvoy) and Cecilia (Knightley) is a nothing scene, but it is the scene with them and Briony (Garai) that should be the climax of the film that is truly wasted. Hampton said they experimented with Briony actually dividing into two people — one fictional, one historic — after she left the church. This Sliding Doors gambit didn’t work, he said; it gave up the surprise. I think a Sixth Sense gambit might’ve been more effective. There is the germ of it there already, in how Robbie seems like a ghost at the beginning of the scene. If they had allowed it to play with two possible interpretations — the fictional one initially, the historical one in light of the later information — there would’ve been greater drama and greater irony.

And then there’s the ‘surprise’ leap into the present. Hampton says they modeled the interview scene on the Dennis Potter interview. Potter was a television writer who, shortly before he succumbed to multiple cancers, gave a famous interview while sipping from a flask filled with morphine. Vanessa Redgrave, who blew me away in her single-scene turn in Kinsey, failed to move me here. The filmmakers never come close to the force of the Potter interview in this stagey, lackluster scene. As abrupt and surprising as it was (I never read the book, where apparently the narratrix reveals her lack of omniscience mid-paragraph), I think the instinct was correct. I think the execution falls short.

The overall execution of the movie is so fine that of course I am picking nits here. Much like No Country for Old Men, Atonement is worth seeing even if the ending of the story doesn’t live up to the beginning of it. There is a level of filmmaking and storytelling here that places it in the highest ranks of this year’s films. I most definitely recommend seeing it, and am curious as to how others view the tangled post-modern structure applied to the Merchant-Ivory mindset.

A profile of Christopher Hampton in The Guardian
Creative Screenwriting Podcasts