We can probably all agree that children should be protected from seeing and hearing and thinking about sexual contacts in the world around them and yet, sometimes they aren’t, sometimes they get a dose of reality before they’re ready to handle it. In both “Atonement” and “The Kite Runner,” young kids end up seeing sexual encounters — in one case consenting and in the other definitely not — and they make choices they end up regretting for the rest of their lives. They end up dragging other innocents into their confusion and creating even more victims. Each of these two films lives in a couple of different time periods, too, making just keeping track of some things a challenge. They both explore tough and demanding material where the rooting values and the unfolding of the aftermath is tricky stuff. You want them to succeed but it’s a high-wire act. Let’s see how these two highly regarded films — both adapted from respected novels — stack up against each other.
The first of the two films embedded inside “Atonement” deals with idyllic lives being lived in an English country house between the World War I and World War II. There’s a full helping of “Upstairs, Downstairs” served up here because our two leads — Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) — are on the two sides of the divide. She’s the headstrong older daughter in a wealthy family and he’s the housekeeper’s son. But love and sex don’t always care about those distinctions and Cecilia and Robbie are destined to end up in each other’s arms. This would be reasonably okay except that Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), is 13 and even more confused sexually than they are, and she reads a letter and then sees some things that causes her to strike out at the very man she, herself, has an infatuation with. After that happens, suddenly it’s five years later, Britain is at war with Germany, Robbie has returned to the scene, and we see the evacuation of Dunkirk in a way it’s never been seen in film before. And then, come to think of it, there’s even a third time period in this film, but that’s all I’m prepared to say about it.
The Defending Champion
The truth is that you could actually call “The Kite Runner” by the title of the other film in this Smackdown, “Atonement,” and get away with it. This film concerns life in Afghanistan before and after the rise of the Taliban, moves to the United States and back again. It’s all seen through the eyes of another child of privilege, in this case a 12-year-old boy named Amir (back in 1978) who turns out to be a writer in San Francisco (in 2001). The thing is Amir also was involved in an upstairs-downstairs situation with Hassan, the son of the family servant. I’ve seen what happens between them laid out so explicitly in film reviews that I’m glad I saw this without reading them and I’m not going to repeat the insult. Suffice it to say that something happens to Hassan and Amir is a witness and how he deals with it changes the relationship not only in Afghanistan but follows the adult Amir to America and then back to his homeland.
Both films ask you to pay attention. In that regard, “The Kite Runner” seems to ask a little more and deliver a little less. On the other hand, it takes most of its audience (in the United States anyway) on a ride that they’ve never been on before while the journey of “Atonement” feels more familiar, like a very, very expensive “Masterpiece Theater.”
Director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Benioff have had to take a lot out of Khaled Hosseini’s novel of “The Kite Runner,” but they seem to have stayed reasonably true to it. As for “Atonement,” director Joe Wright, working from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, seem to have made Ian McEwan’s novel breathe more deeply by their intervention.
There are some spectacular performances in both. “Atonement” has Keira Knightly and James McAvoy making us believe they are not only of the period but are completely believable creating the doomed lovers. For an added bonus, Vanessa Redgrave is on screen for only a few moments, but she ties the entire film together in a surprisingly powerful piece of acting. In “The Kite Runner,” the son of the servant is played by Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada in one of those rare pieces of acting that is so wonderful because you know he never set foot in a Hollywood acting class and wouldn’t know a method actor from a Mullah. But the peformance that worked for me beyond all others in this film comes from Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi playing the militant man-about-town Baba who is brought down to a sad reality in his later years in the United States. However, both young and old Amir in this film barely get by.
There’s another point of comparison that bears mentioning — the use of CGI. In “Atonement,” it’s used to give us the single longest shot in film history (I’m guessing) through the beach at Dunkirk and it happens in a way that feels organic and real. The CGI in “The Kite Runner” gives us kites doing impossible things in the sky, kite POV, and a sense that we have been taken out of the film story entirely. Point, “Atonement.”
Even before the motion picture academy gave a “Best Picture” nod to “Atonement,” I knew it was the superior film. It took me on a ride with grand historical sweep, made me care about the characters, and surprised me with the story. I was carried along. With “The Kite Runner,” however, the parts simply don’t hang together, the tone is hit-and-miss, and the ending is flat and uninspiring. Maybe “Atonement” won’t win “Best Picture” (but don’t bet against it) but it certainly wins this Smackdown.