:::this is the way the world ends:::

Atonement (The movie)

Sara and I managed to get out for a brief evening for my birthday (my Jesus year is over). We had a nice dinner and went to see Atonement.

Things I liked about the film:
1) It is really quite subtle and actually relies entirely at certain points on the actors ability to communicate simply through expressions and body language.
2) The visuals are strong, both beautiful and repelling.
3) The chronology and storytelling are engaging (though even I haven’t read the book it is obvious there was some chopping of details).
4) Its ending makes you think and reflect about its themes quite effectively, forgiveness, judgment, the imagination, class, etc.

Things I wonder about:
1) I am familiar with only one other story by McEwan, Black Dogs. I like Atonement better. Both stories rely on a rape as a central part of the plot. Even though this may even have metaphorical implications beyond traditional plot devices, it struck me as a bit strange.

Maybe those of you who have read more McEwan can comment. I wondered about this because Atonement seems to be about reality versus fiction and the power of fiction to redeem real life mistakes. Any thoughts on this?

I will say that we both thought the movie was a powerful and dramatic story. Just that one thing came up in our discussion.


  1. Shotts

    Ned–Happy birthday to you. Sounds like it was a good day. Welcome to Everlasting Life after the Jesus Year.

    Funnily enough, on my birthday, Jen and I went with a few friends to the film version of Atonement. I like the movie quite a bit, and agree with the things that you have posted here. I couldn’t imagine seeing the movie without having read the book, however. McEwan’s novel is really, really tremendous, and I highly recommend it to anyone. The movie doesn’t do it justice, to be honest with you, and that was the main feeling I had coming out of the movie. The literary quality of the story–and the literary sense of “truth telling”–just doesn’t come alive in film.

    As for the issue of rape, yes I suppose it is odd. McEwan is playing on the idea of the eighteenth and nineteenth century British novel–from Richardson and Fielding to Austen and Dickens. In those novels–in Richardson’s Pamela, most notably–rape is often a violation that takes place as a rift in social mores and class. I think McEwan very perceptibly is interested in harkening back to that sensibility, that idea of society and class as something that can be blemished, qualified, and disrupted–by rape and by war. It’s interesting in Atonement that the young girl is raped but doesn’t, in the same way, get punished for it (spoiler alert: she marries her rapist, and they seem to live on happily enough, as disturbing as that may seem); instead, the wrong man is punished for a rape he didn’t commit.

    It’s interesting to me that you mention that Atonement is about the power of fiction to redeem real life mistakes. I think that’s up for interpretation. In fact, the novel makes me feel the title Atonement, for instance, is completely ironic, that no atonement is truly achieved, because the atonement is entirely a fiction, as made up as Briony’s play, or her insistence that Robbie raped the young girl. Those who are violated are never really given a chance for redemption or freedom, we find out. So what atonement really is there?

    In any case, it’s a good film, not a great one. The novel is great.

  2. Ned

    Spoiler Alert:

    I am interested in the phrase “truth telling” and would like to hear you say more about that and how it relates to fiction.

    I am not familiar with Richardson’s, Pamela. Maybe that would aid in my understanding, though I sensed some of the themes of class and disruption that you mentioned anyway.

    I will need to read the book, because I didn’t mean to suggest that McEwan was trying to redeem real life mistakes through ficton but that the story raised the issue. How Briony tries to “make” them have that time together by giving her book the happy ending.

    And yet, it is her happy ending as we discover. (Whose to say they might not both have forgiven her; so even their reactions are in her imagination).

    What I like most about the idea of irrevocability that the story has is what it says about the sacrifices of war as well as the gravity of lies.

    From the movie’s standpoint, I think, in the end, I felt the story was as much about Briony’s need for forgiveness as it was about Robbie’s need for vindication, since he was wronged but she was the wrong-doer.

    Perhaps we can have another discussion about the “truth-telling” aspects, after I read the novel. I guess, like so many discussions here, I’ll have to go read a book and then return to the table. I look forward to experiencing the novel and hope the film doesn’t color my view too much.

  3. Shotts

    Ned, this is interesting about Briony’s need for forgiveness. I agree that’s what Atonement is about, if anything. She needs it so much she writes a novel to give it to herself. I don’t get the sense, however, that she’s deluded about that: she seems quite willful in acknowledging the fiction she conjures in her book.

    As for “truth telling,” I think it’s interesting that the artifice of the whole story pretends to a truth–one in which Briony is forgiven, Robbie is vindicated, and Celia and Robbie live on in happiness. But the artifice is broken in an added-on epilogue, where the reader is given the “reality” that none of that actually happens. And of course, none of it actually happens. The whole thing is a novel pretending to be a memoir.

  4. Ned

    I found a copy on Amazon for 1.75 plus shipping. I’m sure I’ll post a few comments when I’m finished with it, which will be a while. Some of the issues coming up here are similar to those visited by the book Life of Pi.

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