I don't usually read the novel that close to seeing the film--to go in with the book so completely in my head--and to wonder how they were going to be able to make a film of this book. It was the same director who directed Keira in Pride and Prejudice, and I had liked his direction there.
How to convert a book so completely of the mind--the minds of multiple characters--into a visual medium. It is a book with little external dialogue, but a lot of internal dialogue. It is also (the middle part) an enormous novel describing the chaos of Dunkirk and the horrors of war as seen from a military hospital. It is one character's story throughout her life. And it is a story seen simultaneously from several different points of view.
For the most part I will say that it succeeded. There was a little reliance on close up to show "the internal." But my husband, who had not read the book, said he had little trouble understanding the different viewpoints conceits after the first one. It was fascinating to see how he had managed to find a visual for invisible things, and to make subtle horrors large enough to be seen by the whole audience, as well as keeping some things intimate enough to not cheapen them. Clearly many others in the audience had read the novel because I would hear indrawn breaths before tragic moments.
There were a few moments which I found were slightly better in the film. One is a pedantic one. In the book Briony's sister, Cecilia (played by Keira Knightly), strips down to what McEwan describes as bra and panties. In 1935 the bra was a fairly new invention, certainly not one worn by a woman as bustless as Keira or Cecilia and panties were known as "step-ins," more like boxer shorts. My grandmother who would have been in her 30's in the 1930's never got used to a bra. My mother only had one because she was very busty in her teens. In the movie she wears a sort of teddy which is much more likely. The other is a moment when James McAvoy's character writes a dirty word in a note to Cecelia, a note he has no intention of giving her, an anatomical word (female anatomy). After he writes it he spins in his chair and laughs. He wrote it from tension and the writing and the laugh are the release--very believable and real.
Forget Keira's name on this--this is McAvoy's film. He ages believably and is changed by all he experiences. His short body of work is astounding in it's range--from Bright Young Things, to Mr. Tumnus, to The Last King of Scotland. Wow.
One trope that the director seems to like is to focus on hands. There were at least three moments in P&P where he zoomed in on Mr. Darcy's hand, clenching, flexing, and tenderly rubbing the spot that touched Lizzie's. Here too we see the character's true emotion through their hand.
And the sex scene here is perfect as well--just like the absence of one in P&P. Clumsy and awkward and desperate and real.
This is a gritty war film as well--as gritty as Band of Brothers or Black Hawk Down. We do not cut away or focus somewhere else.
The repeated motif of the typewriter--of Briony's typewriter--is sometimes perfect, sometimes overdone, but a bold choice. It is woven into the soundtrack and crescendos at crucial moments.
And then, finally there is Vanessa Redgrave as the old Briony, confessing her changes. This is the biggest change from the book. In the book the story is dying with her because key players are alive and might sue. She is heading towards dementia--and for her, at last, the blessed release of forgetfulness. In the movie too, she believes her changes do make up for what she did--that the fictional world is equal to the real world, and I don't know if that is true in the book. It seems to let her off, and that is not satisfying at all. So McEwan has robbed us of what Briony tried to offer--a happy ending. Interesting to consider.