Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
June 20, 2024
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Books on Film: Ian McEwan’s Atonement

Film screening at the Regent on Monday adapts an iconic novel

An English country estate in the mid 1930s is the scene of a family gathering. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, who fancies herself a writer, is excited about the arrival of the guests. Her young cousins will perform in her latest play, and her older relatives — sister Cecilia, her brother and his friend, as well as the charwoman’s son, Robbie Turner, who has been patronized by the family and sent to Cambridge — will be the audience.

But adult passions beyond the experience of a young girl interfere. She witnesses an encounter between Cecilia and Robbie, and mistakes passion for a violent attack.

Later that evening when a truly violent attack occurs, she is the only witness. She draws conclusions beyond what her eye can perceive. These conclusions become the facts, with drastic consequences, especially for Robbie, and so also Cecilia. 

Briony must come to terms with her false testimony. Can she atone?

Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) is a bravura display of authorial control. Its capacity to render the perceptions of different characters is astonishing: Briony’s imperious sense of self as a budding writer; Cecilia’s fashionable intellectual posings; the politically charged observations of Robbie, who accepts the privilege of an education from the family, and yet resents that it had to be given.

As their mother, Emily, lies in a darkened room with an acute migraine, she can perceive the actions of others in the house by the smallest cues of sound. Of her youngest daughter, she observes, “she had vanished into an intact inner world of which the writing was no more than the visible surface, the protective crust which even, or especially, a loving mother could not penetrate.”

As readers are driven to trying to figure out the actual events registered by several unique consciousnesses, the isolation and self absorption of human existence is front and center. The novel questions the moral value of the imagination, weighing it against our obligations to others.

McEwan’s attention to interiority explores how an inevitable series of causes and consequences is the product of momentary human decisions.

Half-way through the novel, the violent attack unexpectedly interrupts the slow pace of a country-house novel, which suddenly becomes a harrowing war epic, centered around Robbie’s experience.

The deliberate parallel of Robbie’s dehumanizing march through the horrors of a war-torn France, wounded and in retreat, with Briony’s war effort as a trainee nurse force a comparison, which does not flatter Briony. Although she does change and develop, and attends to the wounded, at one point holding a dying boy in her arms, the narrative never lets us forget her limitations. On a walk through London, she is still free to think about buying oranges and chocolates for a friend. There is no such freedom for Robbie.

Literature and Lies

Cecilia, whose love for Robbie is thwarted by Briony’s lies, condemns her sister’s literary ambitions as “wretched fantasies.” In the same letter, she refers to W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (1939). The poem has a famous line on the value of poetry, one that suggests a commentary on the novel’s central question: “poetry makes nothing happen.”

This is the second abiding question of Atonement. Can literature matter? Does it help?

Joe Wright’s excellent 2007 film adaptation is faithful to both the plot of the novel and its sophisticated formal techniques. It also probes its central questions.

Elements unique to film here offer substitutes for the literary: a rich colour palette, recurrent visual symbolism, self-reflexive scenes, filmed in a movie theatre. The casting itself is symbolic: Kiera Knightley, as Cecilia, can convey both beauty and suffering; Benedict Cumberbatch seems naturally menacing. The soundtrack, at times sentimentally invoking the mournful Englishness of Elgar or Vaughan Williams, also integrates a writerly motif, scoring the rhythmic percussive sounds of a typewriter.

Like the novel, the film finds ways to offer multiple and competing perspectives. We are given one take on an event, only to see it again from another point of view.

Like the novel, the film finds ways to offer multiple and competing perspectives. We are given one take on an event, only to see it again from another point of view. 

The film streamlines, though; the pace is quicker, and it presents the dilemma and the characters more clearly and succinctly. Briony’s awareness of her crime is only implied by a look of shock, rather than the slow, moral deliberation of the novel. The film makes clear choices where the novel offers only ambiguous clues.

The simplifying of the film offers the solace of certainty, the conviction that atonement is possible even if it does take only an imaginative form. That it is Vanessa Redgrave, as the now elderly Briony, who offers this conviction helps. As Auden concluded about poetry, “it survives, / A way of happening.” 

The film screens at The Regent Monday 22 May at 7pm. Tickets available online or at the door.

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 20 edition of The Picton Gazette
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