Ian McEwan’s 2002 historical drama is a story so dependent on words, stories and unreliable narration that it feels anchored to its literary roots. However, its 2007 film does not skimp on the characters nor streamline the scintillating chain of events.
The first half of McEwan’s novel takes place on one hot summer day at a family mansion in England. The evening comes to a climax when young Briony (Saoirse Ronan, in an Oscar-nominated debut) finds her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) having sex with the servant’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy). However, Briony thinks Robbie is assaulting Cecilia, which the police confirm through erotic letters he wrote her. As per the novel, Joe Wright’s adaptation frames the action from many different perspectives, especially Briony’s, so that the audience can understand what turns out to be a misunderstanding. It’s a tense family drama with the overwhelming power of words.
The novel, on the other hand, begins to stumble once it moves into World War II, where Robbie fights, ponders his innocence and is then wounded. This is an example when a fragmented storyline suits the film. Wright manages to excise some of this fat, replacing it with a five-minute tracking shot that brings the living hell of a war to view with frightening tenacity and glorious visuals, a riveting example of ‘showing’ what even McEwan could not tell in such a capacity.