By Barbara B. Davis, History, emerita
I love film, and I also love reading film reviews. It was most distressing to read Tim Peyton’s reviews of Juno and Atonement, two fine films. He seems not to understand that a critical review is NOT about himself and his own personal biases; he never defines some of his terms, either, such as what he means by “popular culture.” The Record is not a soapbox, it is a means of communicating news in an unbiased fashion; or should be.
One fateful day during Summer, 1935. The Tallis residence outside London, a lovely mansion set in a lush garden, with pools, fountains, grottos, all bespeaking the family’s wealth, taste, and social standing (Mr. Tallis is actually a minister in the government although we never meet him). It is a busy day with visiting cousins, a friend of the elder son, Leon, Paul Marshall, who is hugely wealthy and will become even wealthier from the impending war. All these minor characters are important, but the central figures are: Briony (pronounced Briney), a rather precocious thirteen year-old with a literary bend and an over-active imagination who has just finished writing a rather gothic, highly romantic play; her elder sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley, Pride and Prejudice) just graduated from Cambridge and wondering what next; Robbie (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) the son of a servant who is the protégé of Tallis senior, having also just finished his degree from Cambridge and thinking of becoming a doctor. A series of amorous incidents between Cecilia and Robbie culminate in a passionate assignation in the library. The problem is that Briony witnesses them, and, not really understanding love or sexual attraction, is free to distort them accordingly. So when her cousin, Lola, is raped, Briony is sure Robbie is the culprit. Part I ends with Robbie being led away by the police, and Cecilia, dressed in a billowing kelly green satin gown, watches helplessly. Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) creates a luminosity of this scene that is both breathtaking and unforgettable.
Part II. The tragic final days of La Drôle Guerre (Strange War, 1939-40). The Allies, (British and French) are retreating to the French coast, Dunkirk, having been overwhelmed by the speed of the German army. Robbie, now a private, having exchanged prison for the army, and two comrades have become separated from the regiment and are making their way to the sea through back roads. The lush Norman countryside soon gives way to the somber coast where thousands of men are waiting for ships that have not arrived, and an R.A.F. that is supposed to provide air cover but is nowhere to be seen. The palette here is shades of brown, not only to suggest hopelessness and disarray, but a surreal, dreamlike state. The rhythm of the film is also substantially slowed down to further suggest dream: horses are being shot and machinery destroyed in slow motion. Briony, now an adult, has eschewed Cambridge to become a nurse, part of her atonement for her childhood sin, which, she now understands, has ruined the lives of all concerned. In the final scene, an Epilogue, Briony, now a famous novelist is being interviewed by a literary critic. Played marvelously by Vanessa Redgrave—her eyes and hair style resemble the young Briony of thirteen—she discloses that she is dying from a rare disease where she slowly loses her memory, the mainstay of any writer, and she also reveals important facts about her now famous novel, Atonement, so that we now have a fiction within a fiction.
Thus the film is deeply literary, but it is also writerly, not only because it is based on a highly acclaimed novel of the same name, but because throughout we are made aware of the craft of writing. In Part I there is the constant clatter of a typewriter in the background, both Briony’s and Robbie’s. In Part II Briony’s short story, “Atonement” has been accepted for publication. And finally, the boundaries between fiction and the reality of the novel are thoroughly blurred. There is no ending other than the one we wish.