Updated: Apr 22
Spoilers ahead. Happy birthday James McAvoy!
I’m a big fan of Joe Wright. Not everyone is- and I’m well aware of the fact of the fact that he’s made a couple stinkers- but I think that, when he has good material to draw from, he has the capacity to make a really great movie. Although nothing will top Pride & Prejudice (2005) for me, I think that Atonement (Ian McEwan) is a shining example of that.
I watched the movie a few years back based on my sister’s recommendation, and I remember the first forty minutes leaving me in awe. Going in with no knowledge of the plot, that is probably the most common reaction, because the pace is rapid, calculated, and respectful of the importance of perspective by intercuts between the characters. Three years later, I happen to be searching for a book to pass the days in quarantine, and this just happened to be first on my shelf. Perfect. I read it, took some notes, rewatched the movie, and here we are.
Conveniently, the book is split up into four parts, much like the movie (with the occasional flashback). It’s third person, although it more or less picks one character to study during each chapter. I will take the liberty of inventing names for the sections.
Part 1: The Lie
The book starts out much like the movie: Briony typing up The Trials of Arabella. We get some insight into her psyche.
“She was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so,” (pg. 4).
“A taste for the miniature was one aspect of an orderly spirit. Another was a passion for secrets,” (pg. 5).
Further, as a precocious 13-year-old obsessed with her dictionary, we find out her frustrations with writing.
“Even writing out the she saids, the and thens, made her wince, and she felt foolish, appearing to know about the emotions of an imaginary being. Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character’s weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself,” (pg. 6).
“…writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturization. A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm,” (pg. 7).
I apologize to focus so heavily on this initial chapter, which, if you couldn’t tell, I find quite brilliant in how they build up all the idiosyncrasies of a little girl in a mere sixteen pages, but I find it gives a fantastic introduction to the themes of the novel that the film evidently is unable to explore completely. So, how does the movie measure up?
The plot carries on much the same, save for the addition of a conversation between Briony and Cecelia out in the yard (pictured above): the cousins come into town, Briony implores them to prepare for her play, Briony spots Cecelia stripping and jumping into the fountain, Briony contemplates the matter intensively, (although the book makes quite a more fuss demonstrating that Briony abandons her passion project out of sudden, unexplainable exhaustion that causes her to make her way out further out into the expansive property), Paul Marshall and Leon come into town, and Paul spends time meeting with Lola and the children. This is a scene I’m especially content they placed into the movie exactly as is because it’s just so deeply uncomfortable. The novel makes several subtle references to Paul’s creepy behavior.
“Without removing his shoes, he had stretched out on the enormous four poster and… dropped away into a light sleep in which his younger sisters had appeared, all four of them, standing around his bedside, prattling and touching and pulling at his clothes. He woke, hot across his chest and throat, uncomfortably aroused, and briefly confused by his surroundings,” (pg.57).
“’You’re a singer,’ Lola said. ‘At least, you have a nice voice.’
‘Kind but wrong. D’you know, you remind me of my favorite sister…’” (pg.58).
Yikes. Emily, the mother, during her migraine, even hears the two speaking but assumes that Marshall is just being a good guy by entertaining the children.
The plot carries on very much the same, with Robbie writing his letter(s) and laughing to himself, Cecelia nervous about her own provocative behavior, and Robbie delivering the letter to Briony (who, rather than whacking weeds when Robbie appears, is standing completely still on a bridge in the book).
“This was the challenge she was putting to existence- she would not stir, not for dinner, not even for her own mother calling her in. She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her own fantasies, rose to her challenge and dispelled her insignificance,” (pg.72).
With this quote we get some idea as to why she opened the letter. It came straight for her. She associated it to a work of fate. Briony figured that if she was truly insignificant, nothing would’ve happened to her. But by this act of being promoted to letter carrier, it confirms to her that she should involve herself in these affairs.
Cecelia receives the letter (dressed in that same green dress that costume designer Jacqueline Durran brought so impeccably to life in the film), Briony feigns ignorance of her questions in her remarkably infuriating way, and Robbie arrives soon after. Lola is upset about her scratches, which Briony sort of ignores, choosing to confide in Lola about the ever so frightening word she saw. Lola confirms that he must be a maniac.
Then the infamous library scene, which is roughly translated to film word for word. It’s an electrifying moment that encapsulates the intensity of the paradoxically uneventful story up until then. Period dramas always manage to find great spectacle within the mundane.
Briony interrupts, and you wonder if anyone has ever been more irritating in the history of characters. Her narcissism has told her that she is supposed to be the protecting Cecelia from this raving sexual monster, as any 13-year-old would expect of herself. Then straight to an awkward dinner- Briony on the offensive- although, in the novel, the twins are at dinner and don’t leave the note until after they are excused.
Mr. Marshall, in the meantime, explains that he was the one to pull the scratching children off of Lola in his ever so heroic way, leading even Robbie to become so suspicious as to wonder why he didn’t bring it up earlier. Though, we know that Robbie will become convinced in the proceeding years that Danny Hardman (a name mentioned roughly three times throughout Part 1) was the dangerous one.
The twins run away, the team splits up- Robbie will come to regret the fact that he chose to go off alone on the search since he had no one to provide him with an alibi- Briony witnesses the crime and jumps to conclusions, confesses, and Robbie goes to prison. Woo! We’re finished. Part 1 is almost entirely the same, and what a rush of conflicting feelings! Time to skip ahead five years.
Part 2: The Consequences of the Lie
I won’t take too much time on this one, because the plot isn’t as important in sequence. Robbie, given the option to leave prison in exchange for serving in the war, chooses to become a soldier. He reveals that Cecelia has cut herself off from her entire family and has continued to write to him and love him while he was in prison. He has just a few minutes to see Cecelia before she is due at her nurse’s ward, and it’s relatively awkward until they exchange a kiss. One more memory to hold on to.
Intermixed with that is Robbie witnessing war atrocities. He stays in a friendly Frenchman’s barn. There’s a long walk to the sea with both soldiers and French families fleeing from their villages, while bomber planes sweep over the main road. Robbie reflects on how many people he has seen die, including a young boy and a mother and her child who he could not save. He reflects too on a strange encounter with Briony some years earlier (featured in the movie) who once jumped in the river despite not being a strong swimmer, forcing him to save her. She then confessed her love to him.
“For three years she must have nurtured a feeling for him, kept it hidden, nourished it with fantasy or embellished it in her stories… this theory, or conviction, rested on the memory of a single encounter- the meeting at dusk on the bridge… in her mind he had betrayed her love by favoring her sister,” (pg. 229-230).
Despite not being an colonel, he assumes that type of position among his fellow soldiers with his superior French skills and natural leadership. He is nursing a wound on his side and has not slept for several days by the time that he finally arrives at Dunkirk.
One of the movie’s most critical and memorable scenes is the several minute long take at Dunkirk- and I will say, it is quite a feat. The film takes far more liberties in showcasing the haunting beauty of the thousands of men all praying that they may be rescued. Honestly, the movie does a better job than the book does at giving an idea of just how immense the beach is and just how apocalyptic the ruins were. In doing so, it shows a real empathy for the community of soldiers that the book could not quite find time for in focusing on Robbie's aim for survival.
In the book, Robbie limps so he avoids being commissioned again by a ground troop leader. He is thirsty beyond belief and searches for a drink in an old bar that has already been raided by the drunks. While there, they witness a fight in which some big soldiers are taking out their anger on a weaker man. Robbie, Mace, and Nettle devise a plan to help the man to escape by acting like they’re going to drown him. They lose Mace in the process but cannot dally looking around. A nice gypsy woman gives them food and water after they retrieve her pig, and they settle down for the night.
Now, let's just admire some cinematography from this section.
Part 3: Atonement
Five years later, Briony is a nurse who finds some degree of comfort in the structure of her new life. She speaks only in vague details to her parents, who inform her of changes on the grounds and deaths and marriages. There is a bit of time where the hospital clears out, when Briony find out that a story she wrote about Cecelia and Robbie in the fountain was rejected from a magazine, and then the injured troops from Dunkirk arrive. This by far is the least interesting part of the novel until it culminates in her conversation with the dying Frenchman, from where she derives a new sense of purpose.
The movie is the same. Thankfully, it speeds things up a bit, although it would be fair to say that Briony is made more into a main character at the ward in the movie whereas in the book, it focuses on her transition to a background character- which is kind of the whole point of her assuming this career path. As a nightingale nurse she is supposed to perform her duties without any hesitation and without any real individualism. I think part of my annoyance with this portion of the movie is just my personal opinion that the actress who played 18 year old Briony was not very good, so it’s quite distracting to make that transition to an older actress who does not feel as seamless for the role. I digress.
Briony attends Lola and Paul’s wedding, and feels like she shouldn’t be there. When the priest asks if there is anyone who would like to object to their union, Briony just nearly stands up. In that moment, the book speaks quite plainly for the first time.
“And what luck that was for Lola- barely more than a child, prized open and taken- to marry her rapist,” (pg. 306).
Then she decides not to. Consent has been given, many wounds have been healed, and all of her evidence five years ago was to the contrary.
She almost heads back to the ward without any sort of action being done before deciding to see Cecelia. She confesses her regrets and gives the true name of the guilty, and Robbie, initially angry and then just resigned, gives her instructions for her to atone. Briony recalls her crush some years ago- of absolutely no import.
“He was startlingly handsome, and there came back to her from years ago, when she was ten or eleven, the memory of a passion she’d had for him, a real crush that had lasted days. Then she confessed it to him one morning in the garden and immediately forgot about it,” (pg. 323).
The movie gets this part right. James McAvoy is just perfect in this scene. Briony leaves.
Part 4: Epilogue
We’ve made it this far! Here now for the only part of the book that is jarringly different.
It is 1999 and Briony has just been diagnosed with vascular dementia. She’s planning to go to a party at the old manor for her birthday with the various extended family. This portion operates like a memoir, with Briony using the first person to describe the state of things 50 years later. Paul and Lola are still married and now operate like a corporate royal family. Lola is described as unbelievably fit, and Briony makes quite a big deal about how Lola is going to outlive her. She arrives at the estate for her party and the great-grandchildren perform The Trials of Arabella in her honor. She reflects on how it felt very Shakespearean back when she wrote it and how now it feels very trivial. She thanks everyone and then retires to her room.
In her journal, she confesses that Cecelia and Robbie did die in 1940 and never had a chance to live their lives together. She wrote Atonement, without changing any of the real peoples’ names, and wrote many drafts throughout her lifetime. She can't release the book until every mentioned name is dead, or gives their consent. She decided that she would give the lovers the happy ending they deserved.
“The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her,” (pg. 350).
“I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet,” (pg. 351).
In the movie this information is delivered through a televised interview. In my opinion, it is rather impersonal. Or, maybe my gripe is that it is insensitive to her novelist ties, or that it is too aggressively post-war modern to successfully conclude this kind of story- might it not have been better to adjust it to the old press? Or maybe it just reminds me too much of how they did Titanic. I’m just not crazy about it. It's too much of a tonal shift.
But I do love that the film ending allotted for the lovers on the beach. The book doesn’t have that.
This isn’t my favorite book or my favorite movie. I’m not quite sure what struck my interest in terms of comparing the two. Still, I think it brings up an interesting point about just how much of a role one plays in the lives of others. The novel treads the line between the tragedy of the lovers and Briony’s mistake. She is conflicted about interfering with the truth after a lifetime living down a lie. But if the truth doesn’t do the afflicted justice, shouldn’t she just remove herself entirely and create a fantasy scenario in which her actions did not affect them? That internal struggle is what makes the book more thematically resonant to the reader, I think, as a singular being who wonders just how much their own pure will has to do with the running of the course of history. Existentialism at its finest. I think Briony, in all of that I loathe about her, is an intricate and finely constructed character who is the perfect voice of these curiosities.
In the film, it is weaved so that the lovers will be the last thing on the viewers’ mind: a final act of selflessness on behalf of Briony to just leave well enough alone. I find this wholly cinematic, since the past analysis likely would not transfer well on screen. The beach cottage, the Dunkirk scene, Clair de Lune playing in the back of a montage of WWII soldiers- those are the inventions that elevate the film above its plot and give it that immaterial bittersweetness that hangs for days in the back of your mind. These elements provoke strong feeling and, beyond the straightforward drama of part 1, feel interconnected to the dozens of other tragedies about the plight of young lovers.