I go to the pictures quite seldom and when I do am usually disappointed. Why I am is illustrated by one of the last films I saw (actually on DVD at home), Atonement. Two young people who have just consummated their love are separated when he is wrongly arrested, convicted of rape (of another girl) and imprisoned. He is released into the army, goes to France with the British Expeditionary Force, is separated from the force but finds them again at Dunkirk waiting to be ferried home and dies of septicaemia before he can board. She, now a nurse, dies when a bomb hits a water main and drowns the occupants of the tube station where she is sheltering. But what we’re shown is not the two deaths but the couple’s happy reunion in London, and then we’re told by the girl who had falsely accused him, now a writer advanced in years and torn by guilt, that she’d made the happy scenes up to repay them. So that’s supposed to be moving, or what?
I'm just not interested. A novelist falsifies a history out of guilt: who cares? A couple realise they’re in love: they’re alone in the library; they make love. What does seeing a bit of tame close-up add to that information? Constantly in this film (and in many others) I get the sense that the plot says ‘they realise they’re in love’, ‘they make love’, ‘he and a couple of fellow soldiers wander lost in France’, ‘he lies sick in a basement in Dunkirk’ etc., and the director just fills out those brief labels, illustrating them, as it were, with an appropriate scene, from which we get little more than the label would have communicated yet have to sit through every tedious minute of it, knowing exactly what it’s doing. Spicy bits are thrown in to liven up the experience: they come across the odd atrocity, the woman (now a nurse) unwraps the bandage of a wounded soldier and discovers the horror of the wound of which he is unaware. The little scenes like that may hold the attention briefly, then we move on the next one, and it doesn’t add up to anything.
There’s also one big scene on which most of the budget must have been blown: the Dunkirk beach with the army, at a loose end and apparently somewhat out of control, waiting for the boats. It’s a fine spectacle, but what’s it there for except to be that?
But then the only recent McEwan book I read also had this painting-by-numbers quality (Saturday--he’d evidently been on work experience in a brain surgery theatre so as to be able to include descriptions which seem similarly unmotivated or unintegrated).
It was relief the next night to watch a decent French police thriller, 36, in which almost no scene felt as if it was there just to pad out a phrase in the plot.