The wrong letter in the wrong hands. A stuffy, class-conscious society. The wrong man accused and imprisoned. War, loss and love across the miles. One is barely aware that this is familiar fodder when it comes smuggled in the meta-narrative of Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement.
For most readers, Atonement, shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, is a better read than Amsterdam (2008), which brought McEwan the laurels. Intricate, eloquent and unputdownable, Atonement makes for engagement and reflection as to whether “cruelty is a failure of imagination”, as McEwan said in a Guardian interview.
Thirteen-year-old would-be author Briony Tallis knows she can write a scene three times over from three points of view, but she wrestles with important questions. “Was everyone as alive as she was? For example, did her sister matter to herself , was she as valuable as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave?”
Influenced by postmodern techniques, McEwan’s bestseller is about intertextual storytelling .The fact that Briony’s sister Cecilia is reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa – a story that ultimately tells itself through letters – is not without significance. Neither is the fact that the name of Clarissa’s jealous sister features in the title of Briony’s first play, The Trials of Arabella.
By the final section of the novel, we realise that Atonement is, in every sense, Briony’s story – something she has been working at through her adolescence and adulthood.
“She seemed to walk on to the page unannounced,” McEwan, who actually started his novel without Briony, said in the Guardian interview.
Director Joe Wright’s movie version is adapted for screen by Christopher Hampton. The first half of the 2008 production is set in stiff upper-lip England in the shimmering summer of 1935. It is almost through a Merchant-Ivory lens that cinematographer Seamus McGarvey captures the handsome exteriors of the Tallis estate. The interiors provide rich rewards for a pernickety reader. Production designers Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer cut no corners in depicting the lines of model farm animals in Briony’s just-so room, the mess in Cecilia’s chambers, the long corridor with its polished floorboards, and the semi-dark library that traps Cecilia and Robbie forever in Briony’s febrile consciousness.
The outstanding feature of Wright’s film is the soundtrack by Dario Marianelli. Often punctuated with the clacking of typewriter keys, it is a reminder of ominous, ignominious words – the dangerous undertow of the story.
In the Tallis dining room, adored older brother Leon (Patrick Kennedy) teasingly asks his two sisters, Cambridge snob Cecelia ( Keira Knightley) and Briony (Saoirse Ronan), whether they have behaved “worse than usual” or done “something bad” or “broken the rules.” With her usual offhandedness, Cecilia deflects the matter but Briony says primly, “I know it’s boring of me but I’ve done nothing wrong today.” (The dialogue is from the novel.)
As the precocious, self-righteous youngster whose jealousy and sexual confusions align events for crime and punishment, the young Briony is superbly portrayed on screen. “I loved that girl, Saoirse Ronan, she has replaced Briony in my thoughts, invaded the book,” McEwan said in a video interview about the movie.
Just so. This is Ronan’s film. After her exit, not enough matters though the movie remains more or less faithful to its source material.
The story jumps five years and we are on the beaches of Dunkirk with wronged man Robbie (James McAvoy), who is now a soldier. Several critics have noted the uninterrupted five-minute sequence of soldiers stranded on the beach. In itself gripping, this foggy moment fades in McEwan’s chillingly quiet descriptions of disembodiment: “A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended” and “How quickly the dead faded into each other.”
Robbie suffers in Dunkirk and the estranged Cecilia and Briony (now played by Romola Garai) are volunteer nurses who tend to the homecoming wounded. In the final act, we meet Briony as a fading septuagenarian played in a haunting cameo by veteran Vanessa Redgrave. At 77, Briony has made it as an acclaimed author whose fiction is known for its amorality.
All creative endeavours in the film were applauded at the Oscars. Apart from the Best Picture, Atonement won Oscars for adaptation, cinematography, costume design (Jacqueline Durran’s green gown for Keira Knightley is still envied) as well as every other award at the BAFTA and Golden Globes.
For all this, the” binaries” that churn beneath the surface of McEwan’s superb writing slip through the screen narrative.
Catherine Brown of New College of the Humanities, London, tells us what we have missed: “War and peace is one of several binary oppositions around which the novel organises itself. Guilt and innocence. Childhood and adulthood. Misery and happiness. Imagination and fact. Literature and medicine. Art and life.”
Time to re-read Atonement.