February 15, 2008


Has there ever been a year when so few people were interested in the upcoming Academy Awards? If they had canceled the show due to the writers' strike, would anybody have noticed?

Here's my full review from The American Conservative of "Atonement," which is nominated for Best Picture. However, it's not nominated for Best Director, so it's unlikely to win. That fifth Best Director nod went instead to "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which would be a lock for the Worst Title Oscar. (My review of "Diving Bell" [which, by the way, is a mistranslation of a French word that means something else] will be out in The American Conservative this weekend.) Anyway, with that exciting build-up, here's my review of "Atonement:"

Many successful date movies, such as "Casablanca" and "Gone with the Wind," have combined a love story for the ladies with 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.

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 Dunkirk, 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, gently pointing out that even the "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.'"

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 Dunkirk 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?"

"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.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Steve, would you consider giving us youngsters a list of your top 10 favorite films. The Man Who Would Be King would have to be up there. What else might a twenty-something have missed?

I would also be interested in Udolpho's picks. You both have good tastes in film.

Anonymous said...

Atonement was a horrible movie -- almost a parody of the "prestige" art film genre. All swelling strings and implausible sentiments.

Lots of physically beautiful actors striking poses, though!

Anonymous said...

"Atonement was a horrible movie -- almost a parody of the "prestige" art film genre."

It was bad. I actually liked the first 1/2 of it though. But I hated the last half. Ugh. Wouldn't recommend it to anybody.

Anonymous said...

Atonement is symptom of a disease. Modern society with it's hook-ups with a drop of a hat can't sustain romance movies with conventional plot-lines: i.e. will the lovers unite?

Because if they don't they'll simply unite with someone else. Sex without limits kills romance -- how else are the audience to understand the partners love each other?

Probably modern romance stories need to borrow from Judd Apatow. Make the audience worry if the partners will stay together in the era of endless choice and alternatives.

rkillings said...

"Diving bell" a mistranslation? It's true that the standardized French term for diving bell is "tourelle de plongée", whereas the archetypal "scaphandre" is a rigid hard-helmet diving suit OR space suit.
The figurative connotations for the author's purpose are the same. As a translator, especially of a book or film title, you go with words that have a good ring in the target language and convey the connotations in the source. That's a *good* translation. Can you do better?

Steve Sailer said...

But in the movie, they repeatedly _show_ "le scaphandre," and it's most definitely not a diving bell, it's a diving suit.

Anonymous said...

This blog should be called "stuff that the liberal white people we only sortof hate like." I mean--comeon. Diversity--as in smelly food and affirmative action? I like to travel--and to be able to afford it. And I don't like things that fatten my gut or thin my wallet.

I don't like democrats. I don't want free healthcare. I don't like Obama.

They got me all wrong.

Of course, there was this black guy at one place I worked who basically said,

"You're a liberal treehugger. You're probably gay."

"No I'm not. Am I dressed like that?"

"Well, that's just at the office (giving me a second chance.)"

"No. I'm a republican."

"Oh. You're an a--hole."