Many successful date movies, such as "
" and "Gone with the Wind," combined a love story for the ladies and a war for the gentlemen. With his 2001 bestseller Atonement, the immensely clever Ian McEwan pulled off the novelistic equivalent, pasting together a scandalous country house romance and the Fall of France. The film version is a likely nominee for the Best Picture Oscar because it's yet another purported attack on the English class system that actually revels in gorgeous Period Porn. Casablanca
McEwan constructed his book not only for both sexes, but also for the middle and upper brows. For the book-buying masses, Atonement delivers a pre-modern melodramatic plot, and for the critics, a post-modern self-conscious commentary on the novelist's privileges and responsibilities.
One dark night in 1935, Briony, a writing-obsessed 13-year-old rich girl, briefly glimpses a tuxedoed man ravishing her sultry 15-year-old cousin Lola. A budding novelist eager to connect the dots, Briony leaps to the conclusion that the statutory rapist is the housekeeper's son, Robbie, the ardent new lover of her older sister Cecilia. (Robbie is played by James McAvoy, the callow doctor in "The Last King of Scotland," and Cecilia by the bony beauty Keira Knightley of "The Pirates of the
Caribbean.") The more often Briony tells her story to the police, the more she almost believes it.
Five years later, the wronged Robbie is out of prison and in the defeated British Expeditionary Force, trudging toward the beach at
, hoping to return finally to the still-waiting Cecilia. Meanwhile, the 18-year-old Briony pens a novella about the 1935 incident in the style of Virginia Woolf, full of fine writing about "light and stone and water" but no action, and sends it to the literary magazine Horizon. Its real-life editor Cyril Connolly, whom Evelyn Waugh often skewered in his books, replies with a kind rejection note, advising that even her "most sophisticated readers … retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens." McEwan himself told an interviewer that Atonement is an attack on "modernism and its dereliction of duty in relation to what I have Cyril Connolly call 'the backbone of the plot.'" Dunkirk
Briony struggles with this manuscript (and her guilt) for the rest of her life, completing it only in 1999. In the coda, a TV interview with the 77-year-old Briony (now played, majestically as always, by Vanessa Redgrave), we learn that the story we've just watched is her 21st but most autobiographical book. The elder Briony explains that the happy ending, however, in which her younger self confesses her perjury to the reunited lovers and to the world, is her invention, a respite for her readers from the truth that Robbie died at
and Cecilia was soon killed in the Blitz. At the end, Briony wonders, "How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?" Dunkirk
"Atonement" the movie is such a faithful adaptation of the book that it never seems to occur to screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright that a film about a novelist playing God is an oxymoron. Authors can act like deities in their pages, but once they sell the film rights, they're impotent demiurges.
These filmmakers, though, are too in awe of McEwan's metafiction to notice that the storyline glass is both half-full and half-empty. It's swell that a vaunted master of contempo lit-fic has gone slumming enough to offer us proles a dramatic plot; but projected 50-feet high on the screen, McEwan's concoction doesn't make all that much sense.
Briony's lie is so shaky that we're expecting to see next a lurid courtroom donnybrook, complete with, say, a jailhouse wedding and witnesses breaking down in tears on the stand a la Perry Mason. McEwan, however, having ineptly plotted himself into a corner, simply skips ahead a half decade and ushers in World War II to distract us. (And all that McEwan has to say then is that war is a Dantean inferno, something that William Tecumseh Sherman said earlier and better.)
And if "Atonement" is about the power of fiction to harm and heal, what's the point of having the lovers die in the war? Correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression has always been that WWII wasn't actually the fault of a 13-year-old girl with an over-active imagination. It was Hitler's fault.
Rated R for disturbing war images, language, and some sexuality.