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12 September 2007

It is the Confession, not the Priest that Gives us Absolution

It's been a bit of an Ian McEwan whirlwind for me these past few days. After reading a few good reviews and then seeing the trailer for Atonement, I decided that I had to see it as soon as possible but, as I am me, I had to read the book first. Fortunately, Dokter Landlord had a copy for me to pilfer borrow and I ploughed through it on Sunday night and Monday morning and it was well worth the effort.

I enjoyed Enduring Love, although it was a little too unsettling even for me, and enjoyed parts of Saturday but had always been put off by Atonement, which I assumed (from the cover) was a war story and my GCSE (1914-1939 and 1945-1973) and A-level (16th Century Europe) history syllabuses meant I never learned much about this period nor acquired much of an interest for it. To some extent, Atonement is a war story but that isn't really the point.

The film opens with its title being noisily tapped out on a typewriter. England, 1935. We see 13-year-old Briony Tallis putting the finishing touches to a play she has written to impress her older brother who is coming home to visit. Indeed, the film is oddly spread over time, the first half being taken up with the events of that day, the second half skipping nervously between various points in the future in stops and starts, back and forth. The sound of tapping keys creates a skittish tension that is echoed throughout the film in the typing, in the sound of nurses' heels on the floor, in the flickering lights of a train carriage and in the background music.

Watching from her bedroom window, Briony sees her 22-year-old sister Cecilia argue with the housekeeper's son Robbie and then strip off her clothes and dive into the fountain in their garden. Later, after intercepting a letter from Robbie to Cecilia, Briony catches them in the library putting the bookshelves to good use. Briony misinterprets the events she has seen, which leads her to tell a lie, the consequences of which reverberate throughout the rest of the film. In short [possible spoilers ahoy]:



Briony accuses Robbie of a crime he did not commit and he is imprisoned and before going to fight in France, where we see him, four years later, desperately trying to get back to Cecilia, now a nurse, whose letters are the only thing that keep him going.

It's easy for us to take sides and to blame Briony for what she has done. We see both sides of the story. Or, at least, we see 13-year-old Briony's side of the story and the side of the story of her older self as she finally comes to terms with what she did and what it meant. Her character's main role is really that of the narrator. We learn very little about Briony herself or, for that matter, about Robbie and Cecilia other than that they love each other very much, despite the stolen moments they spent together being so brief. This is Briony's story, however, and she as the author/narrator gets to choose the ending and if she feels that the real, true ending wasn't the best ending for the novel we later learn she is writing, it is within her power to rewrite history, bringing us to question what is reality, what is truth, what is honesty, guilt, punishment, penance and, of course, atonement. If we hold Briony responsible, it is because she wants us to do so.

Briony must live with what she has done and it is her hope that in finally being able to write down what really happened - to confess her sins - she will finally receive the absolution she seeks. Images of water are repeated throughout the film: the fountain into which Cecilia dives, the river where Robbie "saves" a misguided ten-year-old Briony, the ocean Robbie is searching for when he is in France on his way back to Dunquerque and to Cecilia, the hydration he is desperately seeking after many days of delusional walking, the cottage by the sea to which he and Cecilia will escape once he arrives in England, the view of the Thames from the hospital Briony works in and, towards the end, the violent rush of water through London that changes everything once more. We see Briony cleaning everything in her hospital with meticulous care, especially her hands, which she scrubs and scrubs but to no avail. Her sins cannot be washed away so easily.

We don't get to see whether or not she was finally able to find peace and to forgive herself, although the film ends in the present day when Briony is an old and much-acclaimed writer. The ending works well, I think; as in the book, there is more than one ending and as for which is the real, right ending, we cannot tell. As Cecilia tells her sister, Briony is an unreliable witness. There are many wider implications for this but on a more personal level, I've always been a big fan of the role of the unreliable narrator.

As for the film itself, Saoirse Ronan (13-year-old Briony) and James McAvoy (Robbie) both put in good performances. Keira Knightley did fine too, although she didn't have too much to do other than a) look bored, b) look sad and c) sound posh (her accent was perhaps a fraction too glass-cutting and I feel in a good position to judge) and she did look stunning in her green ballgown, though less so in her nurse's uniform. Beautiful, haunting score music from Dario Marianelli was perfectly done. All in all, a thoroughly good show.

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