Guilt is fleeting in most movies. People do something bad and they’re forgiven for it: the end. Character arcs that halt aren’t worth investing in. Even the Three Colours Trilogy said it was alright to say you’re sorry. But in literature people feel bad for longer. The kind of books that win prizes show there are no endings, only events. People in novels can do something bad one day and then return to that moment, re-live it. Movies need to move a story along. That’s why Atonement doesn’t work. It isn’t that the movie isn’t good; it’s what it wants from us. It wants us to invest in a story that someone else tells to alleviate their guilt. But there’s no forgiveness for the movie audience.
Briony Tallis is the sort of heroine movie producer’s are terrified of. That’s why this movie is being marketed on Keira Knightley (who play’s Briony’s sister – Cecilia). Briony is 13 – plain, high-strung. She is the sort of girl who doesn’t say anything to anyone, but who is always composing her thoughts in her head. One summer in 1935, at a stately home owned by the Tallises, Briony thinks she sees someone being raped, and falsely testifies against her sister’s boyfriend. All the bad things that happen afterwards are (in Briony’s mind) Briony’s fault.
A lot has been written about Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in this movie, but that’s because their story is sell-able where Briony’s is not. They are in the movie, certainly. But they are in it, as characters, because they feature in someone else’s tragedy, and it’s only really through someone else’s eyes that they are seen. That’s why – I think – they won’t hold in people’s minds like Ralph Feinnes and Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, because they aren’t fully realised, nor meant to be. They are what a younger sibling remembers of her sister and her sister’s boyfriend – half-deciphered. We feel their lust for each other (it’s more than understandable), but we don’t know them as more than Doomed Boy and Doomed Girl.
After McAvoy has been accused of rape, he’s sent to prison. After prison, he’s sent to war. The second half of Atonement is centred round the Dunkirk evacuation, when British forces were evacuated from France in 1940. Director Joe Wright stages one of the most bravura tracking shots in recent memory as McAvoy arrives at Dunkirk; the camera weaves between dissolute soldiers in their hundreds, showing the British army come undone. Doubtless there will be accusations that this is a show-off shot, designed to get its director noticed, but it also shows things as McAvoy would see them: everything all-at-once and far-too-big.
There are no battles in Atonement. A movie concerned with nuances of perspective would get lost in the midst of battle. Besides, Briony doesn’t see the war as it is fought. She becomes a nurse, and sees war’s aftermath. She tries to atone for ruining a life by saving lives – when she can’t save lives, she bears witness (asking soldiers to call her by name, instead of Nurse Tallis). The Briony we meet in the middle of Atonement is sad and choked and inward-looking. Her expression reads: I’m sorry. But she cannot heave her heart into her mouth.
Guilt in Atonement is a millstone, but neither Ian McEwan’s novel, nor the movie, suggest that the burden gets lighter with the passage of time. Briony cannot undo what she did; she can only look back on it. Her understanding of her actions will grow, she will see things differently, but the past is set. In a novel this is a story that is rewarding to read, because we can follow Briony’s thoughts and trace our own regrets alongside them. But in a movie, where we are asked to invest in Briony and her sister (and her sister’s boyfriend, and three different actresses as Briony) we lose heart. Movies don’t do well with thinking about events. Movies move, it’s books that dwell.