I am assured by those who have read the Ian McEwan novel that serves as the source for this year's chief prestige picture Atonement that it is a master study of humanity: love, weakness, guilt, self-awareness all writhing together on the page in a brilliant work of art. And I'm sure those people are telling me the truth, but you'd never know it from the the film, which is fairly well-directed, well-written and well-acted, and never quite gets around to answering the fundamental question of all art, which is: why does this thing exist?

To be certain, I'm not saying I found it a miserable, hateful experience - the two-hour running time absolutely flew past, and there's no surer proof of a watchable movie than that - but I found it curiously lacking in affect. I have a hard time pointing to the reason why: in the romantic subplot at the heart of the film's marketing campaing, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley have great chemistry, so that can't be it; the three actresses playing the film's main character, Briony Tallis, all work well together and bring out the story's trauma in a believable way. The whole thing just feels so damnably "bookish," and while I should reiterate that I haven't read the novel, I'm certain that all of this would have been much more arresting on the page than it is onscreen, especially the ending.

That word "bookish" is all kinds of vague, so let me try and focus it in a bit. The story begins in 1935, with 13-year-old aspiring writer Briony (Saoirse Ronan) and her sister Celia (Knightley) living in upper class contentment in the English countryside, as Celia starts up a love affair with the housekeeper's son Robbie (McAvoy). In the grandest Fallen Idol fashion, Briony picks up various clues that inform her - wrongly - that Robbie is a sexual maniac, she becomes frightened (and jealous) when she catches him making love to Celia, and when a young girl is raped, she does not hesitate in naming Robbie as the culprit. Flash-forward to 1940, when Briony (now played by Romola Garai) is beginning to feel awfully guilty about sending Robbie to prison and then to war, while Celia waits anxiously for him to return to England so that they might finally start a life together.

If it seems like there's a lot going on here, there is. And it's the sort of "lot going on" that feels much more novel-y than film-y. Which I think can be blamed on a lot of things, but the source material has a lot to do with it. Starting with the detail that Briony wants to write, everything about this narrative feels like it's being related to us, rather than shown to us, and for a very good reason indeed, that only becomes obvious in the film's final scene, where Briony, now an old woman played by Vanessa Redgrave, is interviewed on the occasion of her 21st novel. Cover your ears, for I'm about to hit spoiler territory: the title of Briony's novel is Atonement, and it is a frankly autobiographical story about her great sin in life, falsely accusing Robbie out of pique that he and Celia were in love. She avers that the only moment she invented was the film's second to last scene, in which 18-year-old Briony goes to Celia and Robbie to apologise, in addition to leaving the two lovers alive when in fact neither of them survived 1940. My precise thought when viewing this was that it must be a magnificent moment in the book, when the reader has the rug pulled out from underneath: is the novel I have just been enjoying McEwan's Atonement or Briony's? How can I trust anything in the novel, now that I know that it may have been nothing but the feeble attempt of a dying old woman to make herself feel better about the wrongs she has done. Unfortunately, this bravura shift is impossible in the film, which is clearly not Briony's novel; perhaps if she were a film director and not a novelist, the effect might have been the same, but since she is not functionally the film's narrator in a way that she could be made the novel's "author," we are fundamentally locked out of this presumably shattering experience.

It's the strongest moment where the film reminds us that its story is primarily literary, not cinematic, but that sense hangs over the film constantly. The heart of the film is the study of three psyches, particularly Briony's, and while I am not about to declare that character studies are inherently literary - some of the finest films in history have been first and above all character studies - in this particular case, the characters are more often "explained" than "presented": I mean that too much of the emotion in the film consists of character saying aloud what they are thinking. Show, don't tell, folks.

Director Joe Wright got in over his head a little bit, I think. His last film, Pride & Prejudice, a solid enough adaptation, was no sort of masterpiece, and besides some well-executed tracking shots there wasn't much in it that could be accounted a triumph of the director's art. His craft has not matured: there are plenty of technical tricks that are surely straight from his head, but they are all very carefully learned, not intuitive. The director has mentioned that his inspiration for the film's look was taken from such quintessential British works as Brief Encounter, and it's easy to see what he means by that, but copying shots from Brief Encounter and copying the meaning behind those shots are different things, and Wright's very proficient work has no real heart behind it. I am reminded of the many Tarantino clones who think that aping scenes wholesale makes for art, whereas Tarantino's work consists of breaking classic cinema into its components and rebuilding it piecemeal.

Wright is a clever director but not a particularly smart one, I guess I mean to say, and this is most obvious in the much-discussed long take of Robbie walking along the Dunkirk beach past dying soldiers, drunk soldiers, praying soldiers, busily working soldiers, and decaying carnival equipment. There's no denying that it's a marvelous piece of work (albeit one aided by CGI), but it serves little purpose and feels wedged into the film. Unlike in e.g. Children of Men, the long take doesn't sneak up on us, it constantly reiterates its presence in its very efforts to show off how difficult it must have been to execute, and its meaning (to demonstrate Robbie's internal devastation) is much more intellectually understood than "felt." No doubt, Wright has talent, and there are plenty of gorgeous moments in the film, but there's a distinctly antiseptic quality to the direction, as though we're meant to hold the film at a distance while we unpack it.

So after all that, am I going to explain why I gave the film the coveted "Left-Aligned Poster of Recommendation?" Two reasons: the first is that, like I said, it's a brisk movie, and although I'd swear that I wasn't interested in the story, I was shocked by how quickly it was over. That's a sign of efficient filmmaking, ten times out of ten.

Second is that the character development that is so poorly handled by script and director is carried off with effortless dexterity by the cast. There are five truly outstanding performances in the three lead characters, with Knightley's being perhaps the most mannered and closed in, and Ronan's being the most revelatory - I don't know why I'm so easily impressed by young actresses, but apparently I am, and the 13-year-old is given the role that must serve as the foundation for every single event of the entire drama, and she does it with great charisma and skill. I was honestly sad when the action switched to 1940, knowing that I'd not be seeing her again; and then Garai came onscreen, and her performance, amazingly, builds off of the physicality of Ronan's and adds to it, and I was honestly in something like "awe" of the acting going on, which felt much more urgently human than Wright's precious structures.

Still, that only takes you so far: in my case, it took me far enough to be happy I spent the two hours of my life, but not so far that I got anything out of it. I don't know, maybe that's the Britishness of it: airless and prim.


Anyway, it's as good as The English Patient, and just as likely to steal away a supremely well-deserved Best Picture Oscar from the Coens.