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The Book

Imagine my surprise as I finished Austen’s Northanger Abbey and opened up Ian McEwan’s Atonement to find this epigraph in the beginning of the book:

“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained.  What have you been judging from?  Remember the country and the age in which we live.  Remember that we are English: that we are Christians.  Consult your own understanding, you own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you.  Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?  Do our laws connive at them?  Could they be perpetrated without being known in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads, and newspapers lay everything open?  Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

They had reached the end of the gallery; and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Henry Tilney’s somber words to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey sets the stage for the story in Atonement.  Not only that, these words prove to be the most tragic irony as the plot unfolds, turning Austen’s satirical parody into heart wrenching reality.

The story starts off in the 1930’s, on a hot summer day in the idyllic country estate of the upper-class Tallis family.  The misinterpretation of a couple of incidents by imaginative 13 year-old Briony sets off the events that ultimately rip the whole family apart.  Later in the evening, Briony witnesses a crime but falsely accuses the wrong man, who happens to be her older sister Cecilia’s secret lover Robbie, the housekeeper’s son.  Is it merely the misunderstanding of a young girl that drives her to bear false witness? Or is it jealousy…or even revenge?  Maybe even Briony herself, as she recollects at 77, is baffled by her own motive. The heart is indeed an unsearchable deep to fathom.

Regardless of the cause, it is the consequences of her misdeed that has tormented her all her life: the breakdown of family relationships, the innocent sent to jail, and later to a horrific war zone, and a pair of lovers torn apart.  As she cannot undo the past, Briony re-creates in the sanctuary of her own novel writing an alternative ending to a tragic story. Fantasy or realism?  As she reaches old age and dementia sets in, the line between the two has also blurred, and yet her inner torments stay as sharp as ever.

Through Briony’s story, McEwan has poignantly shown that remaining unforgiven is probably the harshest punishment of sin.  No matter how hard one works to be redeemed, the act of forgiveness lies with the one who has been wronged.  In the latter part of the story, we see Briony’s painful strive for peace and atonement, and her realization that redemption comes only when sin is pardoned.  Without the forgiveness of sin, there is no end to guilt.

But the story is not only about Briony’s desparate attempt to come to terms with her past, it is also a love epic.  It is the heart-wrenching chronicle of the perseverance and loyalty between two lovers, Cecilia and Robbie, who, sustained by love, are able to withstand the searing pain of separation and atrocities. It is about the absurdity of war, that in the chaos of a war zone, everyone is guilty, and yet, everyone is a victim. It is also about the essence of a family and the fragility of relationships.  The multi-layered structure of the plot and characterization give rise to the complexity and depth of the story.

Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan has written 11 novels and won numerous literary awards.  The novel Atonement has garnered four since its publication in 2001.  McEwan has shown himself to be a master of descriptive and incisive writing.  His story is riveting.  At times I have to read slowly, going back to re-read a passage several times, in order to capture all the details and savour the intricacies of the description and characterization.  At times I read it quickly to capture the flow of the plot, eager to find out where it would lead me.  The author has my emotions in his grasp.  I have to admit, this is one of the rare occasions that I highlight as I read a novel.  Overall, a very engrossing and satisfying read.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Film

Atonement the movie

Update February 11:  Atonement just won Best Picture and Best Production Design at the BAFTA (British Academy for Film and Television Arts) Awards in London yesterday.

Update January 22:  Atonement is nominated for 7 Oscars at the 2008 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score.

Update on January 14:  Atonement won the 2008 Golden Globe Best Picture (Drama) and Best Original Score Awards announced at the HFPA News Conference last night.

With such a masterpiece in their hands, the screenwriter, director, actors …the whole lot, have a tall order to fill in turning the book into film.  I must say they have done an extraordinary job in this adaptation.  The film is nominated for 7 Golden Globe, including Best Picture (Drama), Best Actress and Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score.

Unlike many movies based on literary work, this is one of the rare ones that truly depicts the essence of the book and keeps the integrity of its plot.  Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Oscar winner for his screenplay of Dangerous Liaison, 1988 ) has gleaned the pivotal episodes and remained loyal to the work, keeping the epic span intact; although the war section can be dealt with more details and depth as the novel has rendered.

Thanks to the great work in film editing, the audience can readily capture the flow of the story and benefit also from the seamless flashbacks to see the same event from another point of view, hence, understanding Briony’s misinterpretation. I’m sure even for those who haven’t read the novel, the storytelling is still clear and equally intense.

Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, 2005) uses the elements of film powerfully to bring to life an excellent script. The music and sound effects (who would imagine the typing sound on an old Corona can be used so effectively in a musical score), the cinematography and the visual flashbacks, the costumes and set all work together to create a masterpiece of cinema artistry worthy of McEwan’s work.  Kudos to Dario Marianelli (The Brave One, 2007; Pride and Prejudice, 2005), who has composed a most riveting score heightening the intensity and poignancy of the film.  I must also stress that, while the music is a powerful element in the movie, the silent moments are equally engrossing.

Young Briony, 13 year-old Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (I’ve read different versions of how her first name should be pronounced so I’m not including any suggestion here) well deserves the Golden Globe nod for a Best Supporting Actress nomination.  Veteran actress and Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave is brilliant and her poignant summing up at the end is both needed and satisfying. I’m afraid to say the weak link is Briony at 18, played by Romola Garai (Amazing Grace, 2006), where she could be more intense and affective.

And for the lovers, Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, 2007, 2006; Pride and Prejudice, 2005) and James McAvoy (Becoming Jane, 2007; The Last King of Scotland, 2006) as Cecilia and Robbie, may well go down in movie history as a memorable pair of star-crossed lovers. Their acting is superb and their chemistry, charismatic.  The passionate scene in the library just confirms that it doesn’t need nudity to convey love, desire, or sensuality.  I had in mind the movie Lust Caution (Ang Lee, 2007) as I was watching this scene.

Knightley and McAvoy are nominated for a Best Actress and Best Actor award at the Golden Globes.  For their very moving performance in Atonement, I’d like to see them continue the ride all the way to the Oscars, and I wish them well.

Overall, an excellent adaptation of an enthralling novel.  Don’t wait to read the book, go see the movie.  But I’m sure after that, you’ll want to get hold of the novel right away.  This is one of the rare examples of both book and film are worthy of complementing each other.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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