December 14, 2007


From my review in The American Conservative:

Many successful date movies, such as "Casablanca" and "Gone with the Wind," combine 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 adaptation 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.

Moreover, McEwan constructed his novel 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 self-conscious postmodern commentary on the novelist's privileges and responsibilities.

One dark night in 1935, Briony, a writing-obsessed 13-year-old 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 Dunkirk, hoping to return 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 plot, 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.'"

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

I read Amsterdam but wasn't impressed enough to buy the hardback of Atonement that was available at the time. Is the movie and/book really that good?

Steve Sailer said...

You'll have to buy the magazine to find out!

Anonymous said...

Fifi, "Amsterdam" was unimpressive to me, too, but "Atonement" is a truly great novel. Even the "self-conscious postmodern commentary on the novelist's privileges and responsibilities" was very moving. I'm looking forward to seeing this film.

Anonymous said...

If it's got Keira Knightly in it in a major role, lush English mansions and passionate budding young love and longing, then I say hell yeah, it's worth seeing. I repeat, Keira Knightly. James McAvoy was quite good in Last King of Scotland as well.

They liked it over on IMDB as well. So it's on my list, together with the new Coen bros. film.

Anonymous said...

Thanks,th. As for Steve, I seem to remember buying several of a certain magazine that had some saucy commentary lurking in the last pages... : p

Anonymous said...

That's a great movie review. Many funny lines and perceptions.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was an OK movie (this is faint praise, in case you're having trouble recognizing it), certainly not great; have not read the book, and do not feel compelled to do so after seeing the movie (like I have in the past).

Anonymous said...

Antonement is bombing at the box office.

None of the actors can carry a movie, the story is stupid, un-engaging, and appeals only to rich, bored people. The end is supposedly a cop-out on the order of the Mist.

Very likely the failure of literature, movies, music, etc. artistically is the great social distance that the rich leisure class who creates and approves the work has from the purported audience.

Of course Atonement is not meant to entertain people or make money. It is meant to win Oscars for a small group of people to self-congratulate themesleves.

Anonymous said...

From my review on Steve Sailer's blog: "The novel is unreadable...the movie blows goats...don't waste ten bucks on either."

Anonymous said...

robbie was described as very tall in the books. why on earth they cast mcavoy is beyond me. why must all lead actors be so small.

Anonymous said...

"Antonement is bombing at the box office."

Purely anecdotal, of course, but it was sold out when the lady friend and I walked over to the theater at 68th and Broadway.

We went to the Barnes & Noble next door, where I looked for Steve's review in AmCon, but apparently they didn't have the newest issue (the consensus of other reviewers, is overwhelmingly positive. That said, the excerpt of Steve's review here doesn't do justice to the book.

The claim that it offers romance to the ladies and war to the men is true, in a literal sense, but also misleading. Outside of the first part of the book, which covers action taking place during one day, one of the two lovers in the romance Steve refers to barely appears in the book. Most of the action is centered on her sister (the aspiring writer) and her boyfriend's trek toward Dunkirk.

As for the war part, there's really none of the traditional sort of stuff that attracts men to war movies (e.g., heroism, killing the enemy). The Robbie character might as well be a refugee: it's no accident that he has lost his rifle.

Also, regarding the "Period Porn": this first part of the book is brilliant as almost a parody of the Jane Austen/Merchant Ivory milieu; it also enhances the juxtaposition of the second part of the book: the upper class Tallis sisters handle grievously injured soldiers as nurses in military-commandeered hospitals; their country estate is home to a lower class refugee family, etc.

The second part also benefits from McEwan's research and command of detail: how the retreating BEF troops disabled their vehicles, how the 'miracle at Dunkirk' was seen as a clusterfuck by the troops on the ground, how the nurses handled the influx of wounded troops, how palpable fears of German invasion were in Britain at that point, etc.

The meta-parts toward the end -- including the Cyril Connelly letter which could be read as a critique of the languid pace of the first part of the book -- is smart as well.