Sofie Buckland reviews Atonement
England, 1935, and four children are putting on a play. The author, Briony, forced to give the lead role to another, snaps: “if I cannot be the lead, I think I will direct, thank you very much”.
So the scene is set for Atonement, the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel. The film revolves around Briony’s fantasies and need for drama, and the one mistake for which she is too old to be completely forgiven.
In the summer of 1935, the Tallis household is waiting for weekend guests. Beautifully shot and acted, the scene evokes the political tension and sexual repression of the late 1930s.
Briony (Romola Garai), the youngest Tallis at 13, is frustrated that her play will not be performed for guests, and desperately seeking drama. In the background to her typewritten fantasies, her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) falls in love with the university-educated housekeeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy). With the collected incidents of a perceived sexual humiliation, a pornographic love letter and the sexual assault of a guest, the scene is set for Briony’s lie, turning the course of the protagonist’s lives for good.
The film jumps four years to World War Two, following Robbie as a jarringly over-educated private soldier amongst working-class London lads in Northern France. The scenes at Dunkirk are surreal and hellish — from soldier’s choirs in broken bandstands to the shooting of the horses, to the torn, bombed out sailing ship on the beach, McAvoy’s character wanders desperately, unaware if he’ll ever make it home. Neither these nor the London hospital scenes flinch from the horrors of war, the blood, or the tension for lovers of waiting to see if either survives.
There are even hints of anti-war sentiment, rather than the usual nostalgic patriotism in such films — Robbie’s companion, a cheeky working-class Cockney, jokes about giving Europe to Germany because “Britain’s got Africa”, a tacit acknowledgement of the imperial roots of the war. Later, in Dunkirk, the audience catches the end of an anti-hierarchy army song.
The war is shown from a working-class perspective — the nurses, the soldiers lost in France with no superiors, the bloody, dirty horror of it, with no mention of the glories of war. There are no Germans, or imperial sentiments about the honour of dying for one’s country, or even a purpose. It’s just hell.
And, aside from the war, this is no ordinary story of frustrated love across the classes — McAvoy’s Robbie is bright, aspiring and looks to have almost escaped his working-class background. At the beginning of the film it seems almost possible, despite the class divide, that he could win the girl from the big house.
But as Robbie writes Cecilia an explicit note, it’s hard to avoid shouting at the screen — his acceptance into the bourgeois world is shaky to say the least, and unlikely to withstand any sexual transgression.
Neither is this a story of working-class desire to become bourgeois. Whilst discussing university with Cecilia, McAvoy’s character forcefully declares he will “pay [her] father back” for funding him through Cambridge. Later, in the Dunkirk scenes, he writes a letter talking of a “life without shame” — searching, throughout the film, simply for dignity.
Of course, all of this is tempered by the film’s last twist (don’t worry, I won’t reveal it – go see for yourself), which entirely changes the character of the story. Far above the tale of class-crossed lovers, this is a film about Briony’s lie, and her continual drive to both atone for her mistake, and become the central character in the drama of her life.