(Cross-posted at Become What You Behold)
Atonement is too pretty. I liked most of the film, but couldn’t take my eyes off of Keira Knightly. She was too elegant. Her language was too perfect. I didn’t pay much attention to Briony, and focused instead on the budding picture perfect romance between Cecilia and Robbie. Joe Wright’s new film has all of the visual elements of a Jane Austen novel, something that made his Pride and Prejudice so compelling (or so I am told) and his adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel a little too polished. The movie included a scene depicting 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk that Roger Ebert called “one of the great takes in film history.” I agree, and this is precisely the problem. Wright’s adaptation of McEwan’s novel is too enamored with its own beauty and sacrifices the complexities of the novel for an obsession with its celebrity proponents.
Wright’s choice to direct a McEwan novel after his adaptation of Austen is somewhat appropriate, as Atonement begins with a quote from Austen’s Northanger Abbey. McEwan’s novel is concerned with the themes Austen employs in her novels, including the negative side of unbounded imagination and the need for maturity and rational thinking instead of Romantic enthusiasm. While the book focuses on Briony’s journey towards adulthood and understanding, the film focuses much of its attention on the twin stories of separated lovers. Briony as an adult is portrayed in the film by the frumpified Romola Garai. Garai fades into the background, demurely accepting the harsh criticism of Cecilia and Robby’s failed love. This aspect of Atonement could be read as an allegory of celebrity culture. Briony looks like a World War II version of Tina Yothers compared to the beauty of Cecilia and the neatly rough-hewed masculinity of Robbie.
Even in the end of the film, when Venessa Redgrave takes over the role from Garai, Keira Knightly and James McAvoy dominate its visual imagination. Their deaths recall Pre-Raphaelite painting, with images of unbelievably beautiful figures threatened by the curse of their tragic yet fashionable demise. In one of the most memorable shots of the film, Cecilia’s dead body floats in a flooded London tube station. Even in death, Knightly’s beauty is the focal point of the shot’s composition. The other bodies drift to the margins of the take and towards complete irrelevance.
Wright uses Redgrave’s beautifully melancholy face (growing ever more so with each year she ages) to reveal the central conceit of the film. Briony has written a book recounting her lie and its consequences to Cecilia and Robbie. She changed the ending to give them more time with each other. Robbie died in Europe before he could ever come back to fulfill his promise to Cecilia. To atone for her earlier sins, Briony writes a novel where they enjoy a fully realized love affair. The sincerity of Redgrave’s face makes the audience immediately identify with her. Would it be so bad to let Briony have her literary fantasy and let these beautiful people love one another?
McEwan’s novel bristles with the complexity of such an idea. Briony attempts to transform literature into a secular religion, with the author as a transcendent god rewriting history to make up for past sins. In a critical scene not shown in the film, Briony even uses her book to fantasize about absolving herself: ”If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration[…]Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling at The Trials of Arabella? It’s not impossible” (351).
Atonement, as a novel, never relieves the moral conundrum facing Briony, as Brian Finney argues in “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement“:
[I]s McEwan suggesting that the attempt (to atone) is all we can ask for, an attempt that is bound to fail, but that can come closer or stray further from the reality of others? Robbie and Cecilia's happiness cannot be restored to them by an act of corrective fiction. Nevertheless, the attempt to imagine the feelings of others is perhaps the one corrective we can make in the face of continuing human suffering. (82)
Hollywood erases this ambiguity in the beauty of Keira’s eyes and Vanessa’s face. We want to believe that Vanessa is telling the truth, because her face is so sincere. We want to believe that Cecilia is, as the final scenes of the movie suggest, dancing happily with her flawless beau. Briony’s literary fantasy merges perfectly with the cinematic fantasies of the Hollywood star system. Shouldn’t we just let Knightly and McAvoy perpetually love one another in the fictive world depicted on the screen? Their beauty and Redgrave’s sincerity conspire in the film’s ultimate betrayal of ethical complexity: the imaginative fantasy of an imposed Hollywood happy ending where beautiful celebrities can make love in three-way lighted Elysian fields.