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.