Feeble, as atonements go

As I took my seat to watch Atonement last night, I was thinking that I should have read the book first, and the feeling was even stronger by the time I walked out. It was beautifully filmed, and mostly very well acted. The chemistry between Keira Knightly and James McAvoy was just fine. As far as the story goes, the first half, at least, was riveting, and thoroughly convincing. But I was dissatisfied on several points, and wondered whether the novel itself was the source of these problems, or whether the story suffered in translation to the screen. Sandra Hall in the Herald definitely had reservations akin to my third complaint below, and I also thought David Stratton was restrained in his praise despite awarding four stars. If anyone agrees with my objections, and has read the novel (unlike me and Dave) I’d be very interested in their views. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film and intend to.

The first two points are just credibility issues, starting with the significance of Cecilia’s plunge into the fountain. Thirteen-year-old-Briony was transfixed and astounded by this scene, which she observed from the window, and it was clearly intended to be understood as a watershed in her psychological evolution. But it was never made clear exactly what she read into her sister’s antics. Even from Briony’s window there wasn’t anything really shocking or lewd about it, and any sexual interpretation wasn’t born out by the pair’s behaviour after Cecilia jumped out. Given that Briony wasn’t close enough to realise the she was retrieving a piece of a vase, the obvious response, even for a child of that age, would have been to set its aside as a curious incident, pending an explanation. It turns out that the incident was quite significant in the development of Cecilia’s relationship with Robbie (he disappointed her; she humiliated him), and of course it led in turn to the fateful episode of the note; but the fountain jump could have served these purposes in the story just as well without Briony’s having observed it. A kind of answer is furnished in the much later flashback to an occasion when Briony tests Robbie by jumping into a pond herself. But it’s still not clear what the connection is in her mind. Perhaps she was struck by the fact that Robbie didn’t try to save Cecilia as he had tried to save her, and concluded that she meant more to him than did her sister. But that interpretation should have brought smiles and cheers, whereas instead she was launched on her path of suspicion, jealousy and vengeance.

Second was the question of Lola’s complicity in her own apparent rape. Notwithstanding the somewhat odd conversation with Briony in the immediate aftermath (Yes, it was him, wasn’t it? Who do you think it was?), Lola appears genuinely dismayed to the point of hysteria, and I was left in no doubt that she had been raped. But late in the film Lola marries the man we know to have been her assailant, and the implication seems to be that it was a consensual grapple all along, and that she was protecting the chocolate magnate — and herself — by allowing Robbie to take the rap. But if that was the case, feigning hysteria and sending an innocent man to jail was an unnecessarily complicated solution. After all, no one saw the incident except Briony: why not just beseech her to keep quiet about it? Alternatively, she was raped and did know by whom, but cunningly decided that, despite his defects of character, the man in question was a good marriage prospect, and she could win him for herself if she played her cards right. In either case, but especially in the second, why aren’t all the feminists in Christendom howling in outrage that an abused child — she is only about fourteen herself, after all — should be portrayed as such a cynical calculator? One more alternative is that she didn’t know it was him, and only ended up marrying him by an ironic twist of fate. But what purpose would that serve in the story?

My third and by far my biggest problem, however, was the story’s resolution. The title sets up an expectation that this story will involve a dramatic and interesting act of atonement for a very serious misdemeanour. By the half-way mark, now that we know exactly what the injustice in question is, we are even more intrigued. What will be the process by which Briony comes to realise its immensity of her crime? And how will she atone for it? Actually we learn very little about the first question, since the action from this point on centres on the victims. At one stage, she simply informs us that she grew older; we also observe that she learns a bit of wisdom through working in the real world instead of going to Cambridge. The film is just ticking boxes here, and I sincerely hope the book was more interesting on this question. But as far as the atonement itself goes, it turns out that it takes the form of confessing everything in a book sixty years later, and apending a chapter depicting the fictitious happy ending that the couple she wronged were denied in real life. I’m afraid I found this deeply unsatisfying. The ideal atonement involves some kind of restitution. Unfortunately for Cecilia and Robbie, the war ended their lives before she had time even to apologise. But that wasn’t her fault. However, the next most significant victim was Robbie’s mother, who, after the scene where she throws herself on the police car that bears her son away, doesn’t reappear, except in a halicination. This unfortunate woman woman would most likely have lived long enough to enjoy some kind of handsome apology, vindication and restitution, but presumably she herself died before Briony finally decided to confess. Such opportunities having been squandered, Briony might at least have atoned through some kind of sacrifice — say, burning the manuscript of her best, but yet unpublished, novel. She does nothing along these lines. It’s not as if she’s even sacrificing her reputation and future sales, since she’s dying anyway, and the confession is her last book. She’s just making sure she goes to her grave with an easy conscience. Is that, after all, the whole point of the story? Once a self-centred bitch, always a self-centred bitch?

What ever the answer to this last question, the scenes involving Briony as a grown young woman, doing it tough in the hospital, befriending the dying French boy, and so on, are all ultimately irrelevant. But perhaps none of this need matter, since the film’s creators (including the novel’s author Ian McEwen, who is listed as a producer) evidently decided that the film would morph in the second half into a war epic along the lines of The English Patient, deal with general themes of the chaos of war and the power of love, and devote the maximum screen time to atmospheric war scenes. ‘When was the last time someone made a Dunkirk film?’ someone must have asked. ‘What, fifty years ago? Well, here’s our chance for an update — we’ve got great special effects for it these days.’ But I didn’t want to watch a Dunkirk film, nor even a poignant love story in a war setting. I wanted to continue the journey of Briony’s soul, and find out how on earth she could ever succeed in atoning for a crime like that. Then again, maybe I’ll settle for another film or two with Saoirse Ronan, the incredible young actor who plays most of the role.

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29 Responses to Feeble, as atonements go

  1. Thanks very much for this review James. I was going to do a post on the film myself, but, it went the way of a lot of thought posts. It didn’t make it into text :(

    I’m in the same boat as you both because, like you, I saw the movie but didn’t read the novel and also because I agree with all your points, though my own dissatisfaction with the film was more inchoate than yours – but now more coherent given your articulation of your concerns.

    First a minor disagreement on your comments on the sub-plot of Lola. The one thing I don’t fully agree with you about was your comments here. I accepted that the actual facts of the story were ambiguous. You cross examine the story to get a fix on Lola, did she consent or not, did she even know who her assailant was? But a third possibility is that she was thoroughly confused all along in any event. She might be confused about her own consent even.

    Perhaps she is a foil for Briony, and stands there as someone who never quite knew what was going on, and just built her life improvising from one situation to another, at the same time, remaining wilfully confused about right and wrong. That would be my own best guess as to what was going on – along with the hypothesis that perhaps this is wrong, that it’s OK that we don’t know the answer to this.

    In any event, what I’ve sketched of Lola’s mentality is many people’s formula for a kind of progressively amnesic unfolding of their life. They take what they can get, and don’t fuss about interrogating their circumstances or the decisions they make, because doing so will either constrain their options (if they take their interrogations seriously) or make greater demands on their amnesia. Lola struck me as wilfully morally confused and so entirely able to marry someone who raped her given firstly that he was a ‘good catch’ and secondly that perhaps (she reasons to herself perhaps at the time, and also later, he did not rape her). I rather liked that portrait.

    Now to my agreement with you. I agree the first half was riveting. The first time I put my finger on a concrete problem was the scene in which Briony comes to apologise and pretty much beg forgiveness from the reunited couple. Now it turns out the scene was imagined, but I found it very hard to believe – and a lack of realism in that detail seems pretty devastating to the film – since it is core subject matter for the film.

    What was wrong with it? Well the apology, the attempt at some kind of atonement was genuine enough. And just basing this on my experience in my own life, I find one of the least true aphorisms is the one about “to err is human, to forgive is divine”. I’ve never figured that line out because my own experience is that, if someone has wronged you and they actually are genuinely exhibiting that shock of recognition that is implied in a really genuine apology, then it’s almost impossible, if not to forgive them entirely then at least to acknowledge their gesture with some return of generosity.

    That’s not what happens when Briony goes to pay her respects to the people who’s life she’s made a fair mess of (though in the story, they’re now together etc, and so whilst they might not be saying that what happened was good for them, there would actually have been some good things about it from their perspective – testing their love etc etc.)

    I found that scene both central and very psychologically dubious. (I think that’s a similar claim to some of your own itemising of the film’s shortcomings, though on a somewhat different subject). Now of course, within the architecture of the film’s story it is a fictitious scene, so you could say that this is a portrait of the author of the fiction of the story – that it’s projection going on in Briony’s mind. Well maybe.

    But it got me thinking that the unrelenting bitterness of the wronged couple in that scene was recognisably British. Of the cultures I know a bit about, British culture has quite a well worn space for bitterness. And for shame. It struck me that the focus on atonement and shame was also a very British pre-occupation. Obviously atonement is a major psychological and theological concept amongst other things, so it’s hardly a trivial thing, a thing one can simply say ‘we don’t really do that in our culture and we’re glad of it’. So it makes a reasonable theme for a novel I guess.

    But I throw the thought in for what it’s worth. As your own analysis of the film’s shortcomings makes clear, if you’re going to make atonement the theme of a story, you need to do a better job with this difficult subject than this film did.

  2. Laura says:

    It’s a very poor adaptation. The screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, has adapted a few novels and always in the same way: by transferring actions and dialogue and skipping over anything to do with people’s interior lives. Works Ok with some books but not this one. Necessary material has been left out, I suspect because it didn’t immediately lend itself to the smeary-surfaced chocolate-box visual style this director favours. Robbie’s precarious position re the Tallis family is elaborated in the novel via an important chapter which has vanished completely, since it only concerns Mrs Tallis’s thoughts while she lies in bed with her eyes covered, and this throws sufficient light onto Briony’s treatment of him to perhaps approach some of your misgivings, James. Likewise the evacuation of Dunkirk is not the focus of the wartime section in the novel – it’s the remote background to Briony’s education in the hospital – but the latter appears not to have been thought of as sufficiently photogenic, or not in the proper grand style.

    Nick’s comments about the way Lola’s perspective and motive is screened and obscured are a good description of what the novel actually does do with her. Later on when Briony is being taught to nurse, she also learns to observe others with empathy, as opposed to the form of detached spectatorship she practised in her childhood. And so when we learn what Lola and Paul Marshall have done it sharpens the contrast between the two girls – growing moral clarity and deepening obscurity. But this doesn’t really come out in the film because the Briony side isn’t fully worked out. The film itself is so hooked on surfaces and appearances that it can’t get beyond the spectator mode, which leaves you only asking whodunit? rather than any of the other questions the novel’s treatment of the Lola plot raises and pursues.

    The unreality of the scene where Briony, Robbie and Celia meet again is so poorly communicated in the film because it’s only a shade more phonily histrionic in style than the rest of the film (think of the red curtains around the French boy’s bed, the nice arrangement of schoolgirl corpses, the unnatural cleanness of all the water people get plunged into etc.) The artificiality of the film’s style is what destroys any chance of communicating what the novel seems to mean by ‘atonement’ (and I do have some reservations about the ultimate success of the book’s highly ambitious conclusion). Briony’s book (which is what we’ve been reading) atones for her disastrous, skeptical failure to acknowledge the reality of other people’s lives in the only way this is acknowledgement is possible: an act of imaginative sympathy. But this testimony must be honest and true to the external facts as well. In Briony’s imaginative reckoning with Robbie and Celia, she allows them to state the truth that her apology can’t mend anything nor put things right between the three of them. Robbie and Celia are both dead.

  3. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Read the book, going to see the movie this afternoon, think this is a great post and discussion (sorry James, I ignored your warning and am glad I did), and have been reminded by Laura’s comment of the thing I’m uneasiest about in anticipation: Christopher Hampton.

    Hampton wrote the screenplay of Carrington (mid-90s sometime), the movie about Dora Carrington from the Bloomsbury Group, and not even sublime performances from Emma Thompson and Rufus Sewell could save it.

    I think Hampton may have directed it as well, actually. Either way his interpretation of Carrington’s life — failing utterly to understand her personality (though Thompson did her best to remedy this), virtually ignoring her gifts as a painter, and instead formally structuring the narrative by dividing it up into sections titled with the names of her well-documented succession of male lovers (though he ignores the lover she loved the most, whose name was Henrietta) — is well and truly pre-feminist in any way and presents it subject as a wholly relative creature, interesting only in relation to her (male) lovers and beloveds. Apropos of which, I think one of the things McEwen was addressing in the novel was the vast extent to which western culture’s attitudes to gender relations, sex in general and rape in particular have changed since the 1940s.

  4. Lloyd says:

    Seems to me you all saw a different movie to the one I saw. I thought it was brilliant, up there with Into the Wild as the best movie I’ve seen in the last 6 months. It took me a while and initially the tone was irritating but ultimately I was completely seduced. The famous steadicam shot at Dunkirk was worth the price of admission alone as was Vanessa Redgrave at the end, a coda both unsettling and complete.

    I loved the melodrama, it reaches way beyond your average literary adaptation (as does Into the Wild) and suceeded beyond all my expectations.

    And yes I had read the book, liked that as well and think the film more than does it justice.

  5. patrickg says:

    I dunno, I was kinda meh on the book, too, James, for exactly the same reasons you describe. I actually hated the protagonist, thought she was piss weak, and thought myself, that the author was complicit in her idea of what atonement was (which to my mind was totally piss weak). The jarring quality between the two sections seemed to be there in the book.

    Obviously, however, tonnes of people disagree with me, and think McEwan is a genius. I don’t know, I feel like I _should_ like him – I think he has talent as writer, but I honestly don’t feel like he understands people very well; his people are weird. But I don’t like him. I’ve read four of his books and its just not my bag.

  6. Steve says:

    I’m not sure why having the book titled “Atonement” means their has to be an act of atonement, and why James got so hung up on it.

    For me the emotional weight of the story (film somewhat, book more so) is that Briony is *unable* to properly atone. Atonement is the theme, its not a description of an act the Briony performs at some point. She doesn’t atone because she cannot – they are dead.

    When I read the book, and finally discovered that Briony was the storyteller and Robbie and Celia had actually died, I found the quick cascade of emotion very powerful: to quickly realise that this woman had lived her whole, long life with this burden, unable to let it go because there was nobody to beg forgiveness from. All in the last handful of pages. What an ending! I somehow found it warmly bittersweet rather than bleakly sad – perhaps because despite the burden of her unrequited need to atone, Briony managed to live a long life and become a successful author – she was not destroyed. Or perhaps because she was finally coming to peace, now that she is old and has a terminal illness and is at the end of her journey and suffering.

    I thought the movie did not do a good enough job of conveying the confusion of multiple viewpoints (esp with the fountain scene). In the book, this confusion made me feel that Briony was young and was not quite so deliberate in her lie, as though she almost came to believe what she thought she had saw because she her persective was so clouded. The movie made it seem more like a horribly conscious act, which is perhaps why some viewers concentrate on wanting Briony to atone.

  7. James Farrell says:

    She doesnt atone because she cannot – they are dead.

    I addressed that point, Steve, and that’s where I think your argument falls down, insofar as it applies to the film. There were other ways she could have atoned, and perhaps the book tells an interesting story about why she didn’t — Atonement Postponed or Conscience Paralysed would have been better tittles though in this case.

    Unfortunately I didn’t understand your point about the fountain scene at all. What lie? What did she think she saw? That’s exactly what I was asking in the post. (I didn’t understand what point Dr Troppo was making about this either. I don’t care whether the scene was Briony’s best recollection, something she embroidered for the sake of artistic verisimilitude, or a self-serving lie as revealed by other information — I still don’t understand what she purports to have seen or to have made of it.)

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments — a couple could well have been posts in their own right. I’ll be interested to see what PC has to say after seeing the film.

    And yes, it’s possible that one grows to expect too much of films.

  8. I don’t read the blogs much. I don’t like the tone-the rather in-your-face road-rage quality of a lot of exchange on the Internet.

    Well, I guess we can’t expect any visits here then!

    Anyway that’s Mr McEwan in the New Republic talking about the movie.

  9. Laura says:

    Yes I was a bit sad when I read that bit. But it’s useful to be reminded (I find it useful, anyway.)

    I want to hear what P. Cat thought too.

  10. Pavlov's Cat says:

    (Warning, long comment, sorry!)

    In the face of Laura’s excellent analysis of it as an adaptation, I’m a bit embarrassed about what I thought — but I liked the movie qua movie quite a lot, and thought that on the whole it worked, again qua movie. I don’t have any positions to argue as I think multiple interpretations are not only possible but necessary, and I think that was part of what McEwen (if not Hampton) was on about. So I don’t have an argument to make, just a bunch of random responses to what’s already here.

    I remembered remarkably little about the novel and with the exception of the fountain scene and the library scene it was as if I’d never read it at all. Maybe this is because it annoyed me mightily when I first read it (I usually remember books pretty well, and could describe to you in detail, for example, at least half a dozen scenes in McEwen’s Saturday, which I did think was an exceptional novel.) The movie didn’t jog my memory, either. I didn’t remember the whole rape subplot at all, nor did I remember that Cecilia and Robbie died. Or, in fact, much else.

    (I disliked the book partly because (a) I thought the tricksy tacked-on pomo ending — sorry, Steve! — cheapened the force of what had gone before, and anyway a novelist can’t really do that after The French Lieutenant’s Woman and get away with it (and also as a reader I felt cheated and cheaply tricked) — and partly because (b) the novel looked an awful lot to me like McEwen’s deliberate answer not only to Fowles but also to Coetzee’s Disgrace — as though he had consciously set himself the task of also writing a book whose title was a single morally loaded abstract noun, as some kind of competitive writing exercise. In the context of ‘male British novelists over the last 40 years’ he looked to me as if he were trying to Oedipally kill the father and Biblically slay the brother in one fell swoop, and in the event failed to manage either. Don’t ever underestimate the competitive streak in writers.)

    So I can only say what I thought of it as a movie: that it was adequately (though no more than that) coherent in its narrative, and that it didn’t need to be coherent morally, partly because moral incoherence seemed to me to be part of what it was about. I thought the ending actually worked much better in the movie than it did in the book and for that I think most of the credit has to go to Redgrave.

    I agree with Steve that the title didn’t mean there needed to be an actual act of atonement. Maybe it should have been called ‘Penance’, which would have been closer to Briony’s experience, penance being a solitary and self-enclosed act and a one-person moral trajectory. I’m not sure what James means by the nursing scenes being ‘ultimately irrelevant’ — irrelevant to what exactly? Irrelevant in the sense that — given the lovers are in fact both dead — Briony’s emergence out of solipsism ultimately changes nothing, at least for them?

    Re the fountain scene, I thought the whole point of that was Briony’s failure to understand her own stormy emotional response to the unresolved intensity between the sister she’s close to and the gardener she has a crush on, an intensity that she herself is excluded from.

    About Lola and the chocolate magnate — I don’t remember that part of the book at all, but I thought the film did fall down there in the sense that it wasn’t possible to tell there whether or not Lola was complicit, and that’s one thing the film did need to be clear about — though Briony’s shock at the wedding seems to indicate that she was. On reflection, maybe Nicholas at #1 is right about this and it doesn’t matter that much. Or maybe the audience is being drawn into experiencing the same kind of spectatorial incomprehension that Briony suffers from, but I think Laura’s explanation about Hampton and his shortcomings in conveying interiority is probably the correct one here. The other thing the film offers no explanation of and that to me seemed a hole in the plot is the moment when Robbie returns with the twins and is confronted by the hostile household — as if a guilty man would come back like that in cheerful triumph with the children.

    I was intrigued by the conversation between Lola and Briony after the rape — “It was him” — not least because it seemed to me that each girl was projecting onto the conversation her own complete preoccupation/obsession with a particular man; there was something quite Shakespearean about that classic bit of misunderstanding. (I thought that the scene where Lola and her war profiteer first meet and flirt was an absolute cracker and utterly convincing, BTW.)

    One thing I thought ironic about the Lola subplot is that in the 19th century it would have been regarded as the morally correct thing for a rapist (except that he would have been called a ‘seducer’ regardless of the niceties of consent and so on) to marry his victim, which would restore her respectability and prevent her from becoming a fallen woman.

    I quite like those smeary-lens choc-box effects, especially in those nostalgic Bridesheady type productions, and didn’t mind the artificiality (clean water etc), but I do get completely what Laura means about those things as examples of the way the film itself is hooked on spectator mode at the expense of inner life. And I agree that that is the main reason for the movie’s most incoherent moments. But another reason is that the story seems to me a sort of self-deconstructing meditation on the dubious morality of being a fiction writer at all, and that is far too meta to adapt happily to another medium.

  11. casey says:

    I saw the movie but didnt read the book. I find the discussion on Lola very interesting.

    To me it depends on the age you put Lola at. I see her as the same age as Briony. 13 or so? I read Lola’s amvivalence through the prism of the abused child. IMO Lola was a girl on the brink of adolescence who was in that intensely ambivalent positon of having her sexuality awakened too early. In short she a minor, she was molested, even if she was not sure about it. That she was still considered a child is evidenced at the dinner scene where the matriarch of the piece tells her to wipe the lipstick from her face, saying “how ridiculous” or whatever the line was.

    That she has already been compromised/abused is raised in her tearful visit on the afternoon in question to Briony’s rooms where it is apparent her arms have been bruised. She blames her brothers but clearly something has already been going on (prefaced by the flirtatious scene with the chocolate magnate) and here she cries, says her brothers are beasts or something and that she wants to go home. She’s out of her depth as I read it and retreats to the childish cry for home. In the langorous decadence of the upper classes as portrayed in this film, I perceived a sexual menace surrounding Lola and felt her distress was actually apparent in this scene with briony where they first raise the sex fiend that they create from their limited understanding/jealousy and for lola, projection of from her actual experience.

    That she is ambivalent/attracted/repelled by her abuser/lover is not unusual for girls who are sexualised too early and who are not able to process their emotions.Her subsequent marriage to him is only a continuation of her double position as his victim and his complicit partner in the deception.

    Therefore, there are many victims of the original deception and I read one as Lola.Anyway, I thought Lola’s charactersation interesting. I have met women who were sexualised early in just this way and they seem to exhibit the same double positions as victims/willing partners. They are marred by their too early abuse/introduction into the sexuality of adulthood. Her ambivalence rang true to me, even if the later parts of the film became more difficult.

    I must also say though, that I felt a sense of discomfort with the portrayal of the girl child in general, deceptiveness, jealousy, destruction…children in the attic types who unleash a retribution beyond understanding. I do remember shifting uncomfortably in my chair at the characterisations of these two girls and their enormous capacity to destroy lives in such a way, unquestionbly accepted by their families.

    Who needed to atone really? Surely not the children? Rather the upper classes that saw Macavoy’s character as an interloper and used the children’s stories to punish him for his hubris at his overreaching.

  12. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Casey, I can’t remember the comparative ages of Briony and Lola in the book but it seemed to me that on the screen, although they were obviously meant to be roughly the same age, Lola was being represented as already sexualised (before the arrival of the rapist, I mean) in the way she was dressed and the way her body was presented. Briony on the other hand was presented as the classic flat-footed flat-chested upper-class English pre-adolescent of the era. I thought the contrast between Lola’s flirting skills and Briony’s hopeless gaucherie in the pond scene with Robbie set that up well. Clearly Lola was supposed to have (just) tipped over into the ‘desirable’ category but Briony not so, not yet. Humbert Humbert would probably see it as the difference between a nymphet and a non-nymphet.

    Rather the upper classes that saw Macavoys character as an interloper

    Yes. In fact if the film had a really major failing for me, it was in the way it downplayed — almost ignored — this class dimension of what was a class-saturated time and place, except to overdo Robbie’s faithful lower-class offsider in the army as a comic turn. Again, the culpability here probably lies with Christopher Hampton and his screenplay.

  13. Don Arthur says:

    P Cat – I was interested in your response to “the tricksy tacked-on pomo ending”. I enjoyed this aspect of the book.

    I didn’t think that the ending took anything away from the story which begins the book. I didn’t feel tricked or cheated. I guess my attitude was that every novel is a made up story, regardless of whether it goes out of its way to tell you that it is. If it was working as a novel before the twist then it still worked.

    But did it work? The part when I started to feel uncomfortable was when Briony went to see Cecilia, runs into Robbie and she promises to tell the truth about what happened. This seemed so awkward and inadequate.

    So when the twist came I was almost relieved. There was no atonement. It was a tragedy. And all the novelist could say was that soon everyone involved would be dead and all that would remain was her story with its happy ending.

    That comment brought me back to the scene where Briony comforts a dying French soldier. He thought she was a girl he’d known from home and at first Briony tries to correct him. But after she sees his open head wound she allows herself to be drawn into his comforting delusion. So maybe Briony’s question is — why insist on truth when all it brings is pain and confusion?

    With the twist at the end it was possible to go back over the book and read it in a different way. And that was enjoyable too. It was almost like getting too books in one.

  14. casey says:

    “In fact if the film had a really major failing for me, it was in the way it downplayed almost ignored this class dimension of what was a class-saturated time and place.”

    PC, thats right – the critique of class went nowhere. But there seemed to be a hint of a critique through the presentation of the deviant sexuality of its members, Lola and Humbert being one instance. I do wonder what you made of the relationship between brother and sister, which to me, hinted briefly, at an inappropriateness. This was never developed but a few scenes made me wonder. That interlocking lip kiss when they were reunited was a bit interesting. As was the brother staring admiringly at his swimsuited sister in the pool scene. Then, again – if it was meant to be there at all, it went nowhere. The brother’s character was not developed, even in film. (sorry Ive forgotten most of their names)

    It was a disappointing film and I felt that I should have read the book because I was obviously missing out on the complexities of the novel. But from your review of the book, obviously not! I wont be reading it.

  15. James Farrell says:

    PC said (and thanks for returning with your thoughts):

    Im not sure what James means by the nursing scenes being ultimately irrelevant irrelevant to what exactly? Irrelevant in the sense that given the lovers are in fact both dead Brionys emergence out of solipsism ultimately changes nothing, at least for them?

    Since you ask. In the scenes I referred to, we see Briony, as a now 19-year-old, maturing, realising that she isn’t, after all, the author of the world around her, and learning a bit of empathy. The fact that she actually chose to work in the hospital implies she had already made some moral progress. All of this would have had some point if it had resulted some meaningful act of atonement, and in fact I argued that it didn’t matter that the principal victims were dead — indeed, you argue on that basis that it’s impossible to atone for a murder (but think of Robert de Niro in The Mission – now there’s an atonement for you.) But she could still have cleared Robbie’s name and made a significant sacrifice in the process while there were still people alive who cared. However, there was no such atonement, so it’s neither here nor there when or how that moral progress was made, or whether indeed it did at all. The sole reason for inserting her into the 1939 part of the film at all was so that Robbie could have the satisfaction of telling her off soundly in the invented part of the story. From that point of view, what might have been going on in her head is irrelevant — as long as she agrees to follow his instructions, write to the lawyer, and so on.

    I have no problem with postmodern narrative tricks at all, but they need to work. The French Leiutenant’s Woman was terrific — at least I thought so when I say it 25 years ago (and yes, I have to admit that I only saw the screen version in that case as well.)

  16. James Farrell says:

    1940, I should say, before some war historian pounces on me.

  17. Pavlov's Cat says:

    James, and also Don: James said

    I have no problem with postmodern narrative tricks at all

    I don’t usually either, where the novel has been honestly presented from the outset as that kind of beast, and I should have elaborated more in my comment to make this clearer.

    With Atonement (the novel) it wasn’t that I minded the pomo nature of the ending as such — but the best analogy I can think of is the crime writer who introduces, near the end, a new element that the reader couldn’t possibly have foreseen and then hangs the identity of the murderer on that new element. That’s one of the biggest sins a crime writer can commit and it’s kind of what I meant by ‘cheating’; a breach of the reader-writer contract.

    Along the same lines, McEwen presented the novel up to its end point in standard realist mode, and I as a reader was reading it in good faith the same way. Realism is not a horse one can change in midstream without, as it were, chucking some of one’s reader/riders into the river.

    As I say, I thought it was more successful in the movie, and more successful in the (yes, great) movie of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, compared to that book, as well — partly because they had the neat conceit of casting the characters as actors in a period movie available to them, which was a brilliant solution.

  18. Don Arthur says:

    P Cat – I understand what you mean now about feeling cheated. I felt that way about The Prestige (I saw the movie but didn’t read the book). It starts as a story set in the past, but still set in the real world. But at the end it leaps genres and becomes a science fiction film.

    I felt exactly the way you say. Before the twist I thought I was watching a movie where the limits of the everyday world applied. I did my job as a viewer and tried to figure out what was going on and how it would end. Then it introduced a new element that I couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

    It had been wasting my time and I was angry.

    Maybe my reaction would have been different if my ideas about the limits of the everyday world had allowed for more magic.

    So now I’m wondering why I didn’t feel that way about Atonement. I think what saved it for me was the way things clicked into place when I went over the story again. The book starts with Briony casting her cousins in a play. As a nurse she writes a novella about what happened… and so on. I was interested in Briony’s ideas about what a novel ought to be. Should we throw the old conventions away?

    I’m not as well read as some of the other commenters here so most of Briony’s thoughts about novel writing were new to me. Atonement made me interested enough about modernism that I’ve finally got around to reading some Virginia Woolf.

    When I went to Borders to get a book on Joyce, Richardson and Woolf, the cashier at the book shop told me that his girlfriend wrote a thesis on Richardson, that nobody bothered much with her these days, and that I’d be better off concentrating on Joyce and Woolf.

    That made me even more curious.

  19. Pavlov's Cat says:

    The book starts with Briony casting her cousins in a play. As a nurse she writes a novella about what happened and so on. I was interested in Brionys ideas about what a novel ought to be.

    Again I can’t remember how many of these signs there are in the book, but it occurs to me as I read your comment that I was being dopey, unthinking and resistant in not seeing them. Or perhaps not wanting to see them. My generation sees WW2 as very real — my folks were in it, if only just old enough — and McEwen is older than me and a Pom with it so it would be even more real to him. One badly wants stories about that war to have a happy ending and they almost never do. (Witness for example the real-life example of V Woolf, whose mental illness set in again under the unbearable strain of watching the bombs drop, seeing their London flat torn apart, and wondering what would happen to her beloved husband, who was of course Jewish and a peace activist to boot — she drowned herself a matter of months after Dunkirk.)

    It occurs to me too that this story-within-a-story thing is as old as the hills — my objection is that I thought McEwen did it badly, as per comment above (and I know exactly what you mean about the genre switch — that sinking “There’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back” feeling). There’s a novel by Anne Bronte called The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in which several narrators’ stories are embedded within each other rather like concentric circles, and she uses the device of the document — one layer of narrative turns out to be a letter, another a diary, and so on — but it’s developed steadily from the outset, not sprung on you at the end in that “nyerdy-nyer, fooled you” kind of way.

    The thing about V Woolf, apart from her very beautiful sentences, is that in terms of modes and genres you always know exactly where you are with her. I have to admit to having read no Richardson but she was an interesting and important figure in that time and place. (And IMHO if a writer is someone ‘nobody bothers much with these days’ it’s usually an excellent reason to read her/him!)

    But if you want good writing about being a young nurse in England during WW2, you can’t go past Elizabeth Jolley’s My Father’s Moon.

  20. Don Arthur says:

    It occurs to me too that this story-within-a-story thing is as old as the hills

    It’s at least as old as One Thousand and One Nights isn’t it. If you rewrote Nights and gave it a new setting people would call it postmodern.

    On the topic of clever devices… I really enjoyed David Eggers memoir A.H.W.O.S.G but, now that I’ve read it, I don’t really want to see those tricks performed again.

    Eggers decided to add a corrective appendix — ‘Mistakes We Knew We Were Making‘ — which was:

    meant to illuminate the many factual and temporal fudgings necessary to keep this, or really any, work of nonfiction from dragging around in arcana and endless explanations of who was exactly where, and when, etc.

    But later he realises that Mary McCarthy has beaten him to it.

    If I’d studied Mary McCarthy or — even better, Laurence Sterne — when I was at uni I’d probably have been bored and irritated. But I hadn’t, so I was entertained.

    I was curious about the comment:

    One badly wants stories about that war to have a happy ending and they almost never do.

    The stories I’ve heard from people who experienced the war don’t have tidy narratives with climaxes and happy endings (for example, I heard about one woman whose father died when a wall of bombed building collapsed on him. I think he was putting out a fire or looking for bodies).

    But I grew up with so many uplifting stories of heroic struggle and meaningful sacrifice that eventually I became irritated by happy endings. When I was in primary school we used to play at being Lancaster bomber crews and fly around the playground. We’d been so taken by the stories of WWII that we never thought about what it might like be firebombed in the middle of the night. Of course there was one boy whose father had been in Vietnam — the father had had an accident and was a quadriplegic.

  21. John Greenfield says:

    James Farrell

    I saw it last night. I also have not read the novel, but have read a few McKewen novels and think he is a bloody genius, so I found myself constantly second-guessing how he would have written different scences, which is not very fair to the movie makers.

    My response was almost identical to yours, except I had little trouble with the fountain and vase scene.

    On the fountain and Cecilia, I saw that as a very sexy scene. The beautiful and rich posh debutante dripping in water, her silk frock highlighting every contour of her clearly womanly body. Briony is fully aware of her own confusing position in the hormonal twilight zone between the children – her nephews – and her sophisticated smoking sister. Unlike Briony’s clumsy dive into the pond, Robbie did not – and did not need to – save her suave and calpable elder sister. Through Cecilia’s frock we could see her pubic hair, and presumably so could Briony.

    Recall later that Briony instantly knew what “cunt” meant. This stunned me. I wondered how a 13 year old upper middle class Home Counties English lass would have encountered that word in the 1930s. I instantly saw an allusion to Lady Chatterly’s Lover with the “cunt” savvy gardner’s son, telling his bit of posh he wanted her “cunt.”

    I agree with you on the perfectly vile Lola and Paul Marshall. Aristotle argued that a great tragedy rests on the believability and probability of the action. I think McKewen (or the film’s writers/producers) made an error in not tightening this bit. BUT, recall the shot we see when Briony shines the flashlight. We did not see his face, only his hairy ass. Now it strikes me that the investigating police would have extracted this detail from Briony, and the whole tragedy could have been averted by a simple dacking of all the males.

    Once again, Briony is reminded of her hormonal Twilight Zone, where her near-aged cousin is clearly perceived as sufficiently “womanly” to attract the carnality of a perfect stranger male. Recall Lola drew maturity rank on Briony when she insisted on the lead role in the play. Later in a flirtatious scene between Lola and Paul, Lola refers to her brothers as “the children” when upbraiding Paul Marshall’s presumptuous commentary on their family. Though it is true that Briony was not in the room at the time. However, later Lola clearly also knew what “cunt” was when Briony took her into confidence about Robbie’s letter.

    Given how reptilian and oleaginous Paul Marshall was drawn, I inferred he had married Lola deliberately because, as Cecilia bemoans when Briony visits Robbie and Cecilia at Balham, Lola could not be made to testify due to husband/wife privilege.

    The ending was a disaster. The switch from the beautifully shot Dunkirk scenes and the earlier Room With A View bucolic beauty of that Summers day, to the gharish modern day television studio was a real turn off, the presence of the divine Lynn Redgrave notwithstanding.

    3 Stars.

  22. Laura says:

    The novel The Prestige is really excellent – chilling, thrilling, mind ending, historically intriguing, all that. I liked the film too though it wasn;t quite in the same league. I get what you’re saying about genre confusion, but from another perspective, it’s a pure example of the steampunk genre.

  23. Don Arthur says:

    Laura – Maybe I’ll give the novel a try.

    I followed your steampunk link. Years ago, just after I read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, I picked up a copy of the Difference Engine in a book shop, scanned the blurb on the back and put it down again. So, in the end, the closest I got to the genre was this passage:

    The thing was a computer terminal, he said. It could talk. And not in a synth-voice, but with a beautiful arrangement of gears and miniature organ pipes. It was a baroque thing for anyone to have constructed, a perverse thing, because synth-voice chips cost next to nothing. It was a curiosity. Smith jacked the head into his computer and listened as the melodious, inhuman voice piped the figures of last year’s tax return.

    Smith’s clientele included a Tokyo billionaire whose passion for clockwork automata approached fetishism. Smith shrugged, showing Jimmy his upturned palms in a gesture old as pawn shops. He could try, he said, but he doubted he could get much for it.

    I’m still intrigued by that.

  24. John Greenfield says:

    Actually, come to think of it, ALL McKewen’s novels are about the fading of innocent adolescent sex. Clearly the guy is a putative pedophile who – in a very adult fashion – gets his rocks off via a typewriter, rather than committing crimes! :)

  25. Nabakov says:

    “Actually, come to think of it, ALL McKewens novels are about the fading of innocent adolescent sex.”

    Well yes, except for most of them. eg:

    The Comfort of Strangers
    The Innocent
    Black Dogs
    Enduring Love
    On Chesil Beach

    Which are all in one way or another about adults discovering other adults do not always share the same frame of reference about mutual experiences that turn their sense of self worth around like a compass held directly over the geomagnetic North Pole.

    You would do well to actually read the books you’re talking about.

    I also have a lot to say about the film version of Atonement but I think I’ll wait until I have actually seen it.

    Personally I feel Ian McEwan’s just a more laboured Grahame Greene with a brand name condom next to the black Amex card in his wallet.

  26. Laura says:

    John Greenfield’s overrunning of LP effectively killed my interest in that blog.

  27. casey says:

    “John Greenfields overrunning of LP effectively killed my interest in that blog.”

    “What Laura said.”

    Is that why? Thats a damn shame Laura and Pavlov’s Cat. The blog is poorer for it.

  28. Pingback: Club Troppo » An unsent reply to James Farrell

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