Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Mystery of “Atonement”

Atonement” is clearly going to be the biggest film of the autumn. The BBC carried interviews with stars Keira Knightley (Cecilia) and James McAvoy (Robbie) - together with film clips - on the news this evening (trailer below from YouTube).

I wonder how you get the BBC to advertise new films? I guess mention top British literary author Ian McEwan plus the prospect of Oscars.

Atonement” is viewpoint layered within viewpoint. Take the question of whether Cecilia and Robbie actually consummate their suddenly-surfacing passion for each other in the library. (Warning: multiple plot spoilers to follow).

1. The text of pages 135-138 suggests that in an act of tantric delay worthy of Sting himself, Robbie heroically holds off, until the disastrous arrival of Briony makes the whole thing moot -- so no consummation.

2. It is, though, revealed much later that the description of the library encounter is not ex-cathedra from McEwan, but is the imaginatively-reworked narrative of Briony herself as a much older woman. But as explained on pages 123-4, Briony not only never really gets a good look as she enters the library, but at 13, she is dramatically misinterpreting what she does see. And the adjustment of clothing she mentions is minimal. So probably nothing much really happened.

3. However, given what we, as adults, know of the likely behaviour of a couple of repressed kids carried away by sudden, overpowering passion for each other, the tantric scenario would surely require a lot more self-possession than anyone in their situation would be likely to possess. Besides which, both party’s subsequent behaviour suggests that a deeply significant, literally life-changing act of emotional commitment had occurred.

4. But given Cecilia’s and Robbie’s lack of prior romantic experience, wouldn't a passionate embrace have been enough, particularly in strait-laced 1935?

Conclusion? I think it’s impossible to say. Ian McEwan has woven the ambiguity expertly - as he has in so many other parts of this excellent book.

What’s the betting the film will be nothing like so coy?