Atonement - a movie
When I read Ian McEwan's book, I found myself fully caught up in Briony Tallis's need to atone - I thought it was wonderful, the way in which McEwan had set up the events for which Briony felt the need to atone and the slightly ambiguous way in which those events were depicted. I also thought it some of the finest war writing I'd read in quite a while, and bought the difficulties Briony faced in trying to reconcile with her sister Cecilia and Robbie. If that had been the story, I would have been satisfied; instead I felt cheated and confounded by the smart arse way in which McEwan chose to end the book. I hated it.
Curiously, I did not have this reaction when I saw the movie. Maybe it was because I knew it was coming. Maybe it was because the movie tended to take a cleaner line through the story than had been taken in the novel, things were just a little more obvious and thus less engaging: I had less invested in working things out.
I did, however, think it a marvellous movie. The Tallis's are old money, with an estate. Class is an issue for them, so it is something of an imposition that, thanks to some sort of financial difficulty, they're putting the country cousins up. Briony at this stage is just 13, played by one Saoirse Ronan. She has an active imagination: the movie starts with her attempts to put on a play she has written.
Keira Knightley is her older sister, Cecilia. Since I really detested Cecilia, thought her a terribly affected snob, I think Knightley did a very good job of playing her, although it does raise a question: how did such a person stoop so low as to find herself in love with the cook's son, Robbie (James McAvoy)? What did he see in her? Sure, when they were growing up together, they were best of mates, but he says that when they were at Cambridge (or was it Oxford) together (Robbie's tuition was paid for by Mr Tallis), she ignored him completely. Now, they can't ignore the passion.
It is these sorts of tensions which are at the heart of the movie. Briony, despite being so young, has developed an infatuation for Robbie: she tested his mettle by throwing herself in a pond, hoping he'd save her. He did, and thus there's an element of hero worship to her devotion. So when things start to happen between Robbie and her older sister, Briony can't sit idly by. She falsely accuses Robbie of a crime, and has some ambiguous evidence which sees him convicted. It was funny; as I watched this, I was reminded a little of Lolita, at least as Humbert Humbert imagined her - someone capable of both sexual desire and control. But no-one could ever believe that of Briony, she is so young and pure. Thus her accusations against Robbie must be true. Other viewers write of seeing her as an innocent, as getting into things she does not understand and this making mistakes and certainly that is one way to interpret her actions in the book. The movie, not so much; it casts her as planning some sort of revenge upon Robbie; although I do accept she may not have have really thought through all of the consequences of her actions, her motivation is made quite clear.
This is the event, shown in the early part of the movie, for which Briony must atone. As she gained consciousness of what she had done, this must have put enormous stress on Bryony - this is not shown in the movie, just an apparent attempt on her part to reconcile with her sister; the intervention of World War Two did not help as Robbie was released from prison to be sent off to the front line, Cecila to be a nurse. Curiously, a lot of time is devoted to their respective lives during the war even though it does very little to advance the plot and, well, more doubts are raised about the point of these scenes in the final twist at the end.