I saw Atonement last night, the Oscar-nominated film based on Ian McEwan’s award winning novel. I’m kind of vaguely interested in what happens to novels when they become films, but more so in films and novels that are in some way about the process of reading and writing. I have no idea about McEwan’s novel itself—I hope I can get to it someday—but I found the conceptual interaction between visual and textual storytelling—between viewing and reading—very layered and complex in the film. To some degree compelling, but also troubling.
Because I get to these things about three weeks after everyone’s seen the film, I’m going to assume whoever reads this post has already watched the movie (fair warning if you think the ending is given away). The interplay between reading/viewing and writing/performing is there throughout the film, of course. The main character, Briony, is a budding novelist of 13 whose urgent hormone-driven plays are transparently presented as sublimated efforts to deal with her adolescent crush on a older young man, Robbie, who is in love with her older sister, Cecilia. This love of a young girl for an older man is perversely reversed when another young man about the age of Robbie rapes her young friend.
Briony has seen the rape, but using her well-practiced imagination, and perhaps revenging herself on Robbie for loving her sister instead of her, accuses Robbie of the deed. Briony’s decision to fabricate Robbie’s role is caught in the following clip. Too bad it doesn’t start just a bit earlier, where we see the two girls building a story based on their own fears, needs, and class stereotypes.
“Atonement” is, of course, about whether or not one can atone for the past. Can the past be repaired? Even to some degree, does Briony need to atone for the past? Can a young girl of 13 be held responsible for an act, however reprehensible, that can readily be understood as an act of immaturity rather than an act of adult malice? Even, can any action by a much older and much changed Briony count in any way for atonement of sins by the younger child she resembles but in no way repeats. Are our older selves, in so many ways discontinuous with the children that we were, even capable of repenting for sins that were in some very real sense committed by someone else? This distance is registered in the film by having actresses who are similar in appearance—at least in, implausibly, retaining the same haircut for approximately 60 years—but who are otherwise obviously very different people “playing” the same person. Again, this question of atonement is perversely registered in that the actual adult rapist “atones” for the past by eventually marrying the young girl he raped when she comes of age. While the true agent of brutality goes on to live out the Western mythology of human fulfillment in marriage, Robbie and Cecilia are forever separated by the sins of someone else.
For my purposes I’m interested in the layered question of whether writing and reading—whether an act of and engagement with the imagination—can atone for sins committed in the world. How does the imagination act on the world? This is most pronounced in the conclusion of the film where we cut to a latter-day television interview with an elderly and ill Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who has just written her final novel, final because she has realized that she has incurable and progressive dementia that is gradually destroying her ability to remember and to use language.
We immediately understand as viewers that the movie we have just been watching is this last novel—rendered visually. We have been the reader/viewers of the novel, which is supposedly autobiographical. However Briony/Vanessa Redgrave informs us that the story didn’t really end as she left it in the scenes we had just seen. Robbie did not return from Europe to be with Cecilia. He died on the beaches of Dunkirk from sepsis. Briony is never reconciled to Cecilia—as the film had just made it appear. Instead, Briony had been too cowardly to find her sister and make the attempt at reconciliation. Cecilia character died in the bombing of London, living alone and estranged from her family because she had refused to believe that Robbie was a rapist and had refused to renounce her love for him.
The elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony explains her decision to give the novel/movie a happy ending for two reasons—readers could not accept the reality, and because the imagined ending was an act of repair, giving Robbie and Cecilia a life of joy together—symbolized by life on Dover Beach—that had eluded them because of Briony’s deception.
The two reasons, I think, work in very different direction, and finally don’t completely hold together. I’m not completely taken with the notion of readers needing the happy ending. It’s true, of course, that Hollywood films and any number of romance novels make their way in the world on the hunger for uncomplicated fantasy. But is it the case that human beings are so unused to the idea that the innocent die while the guilty go free and live happily ever after that we refuse it in our literature? Indeed, isn’t it our literature that teaches us this repeatedly. It feeds the generally tragic sense of reader-geeks that their own nobility is tragically unrecognized in the world at large. It is played out by English professors who grump that their C students get jobs right out of college that pay more than they make as tenured professors.
Still, this notion does comport with the general tenor of the film. Briony’s sin is first and foremost an act of the imagination. She “sees” what she wants to see so that it will reflect her own story in the world. Her refusal to allow the world to be more complicated that her own seeing is the source of her original accusation. In a very real sense, Briony’s imagination is what she must atone for. Imagination is her original sin—her writing is, after all, a particular way of reading the world that refuses to let the world be what it is truthfully. Her imagination is a thirteen-year-old act of violence on the world, and results in very real violence to many people down the line.
And so, can we really buy the elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony’s assertion that she is somehow redeeming the lives of Cecilia and Robbie, giving them what they couldn’t otherwise have in reality? Something she wants to understand as an act of generosity and even love. I’m not sure. To some degree this could be connected with the work of someone like Ernst Bloch who insisted that the utopian function of art was to say “And Yet” to life, to insist that “reality” did not have the final say if that final say was understood to be beyond the act of human agency, human shaping, human imagination. In the same fashion, if atonement is possible, it seems to me that atonement must be an act that includes the imagination.
Still, is this an act that the imagination can carry out in reference to our own actions in the past? No human action is every finished in and of itself. Rather, it is read and reread, and its meaning accrues and changes by the means and contexts through which it is reread. I sometimes tell students I prefer to understand God as a reader than a writer. Redemption is an act of reading and discovering the possibilities in a life-text that could not have been imagined by those individuals and other historical agents who brought that life-text into being in the first place. But I guess what makes me leery of this particular act is Briony’s act of self-justifying imagination. Can Briony atone for the failures of her imagination by another act of the imagination that further falsifies the lives of those that she has damaged, however “innocently” or unknowingly? I tend to think that this isn’t atonement but self-justification.
On the other hand, what we finally get from Briony-Vanessa Redgrave is not imagination as atonement, but a very different secularized Christian practice—Confession. Briony apparently tells the truth to the reader at the end of the story, and the reader/viewer is the only person in the position to forgive. Briony’s confession of what actually happened is, at least putatively, something that removes her own imagination as an agent in her own redemption. She no longer writes someone different from who she is, but says who she is and what she has done and failed to do, and what the consequences have been. The production of art that moves a reader is no compensation for the evil that produces it. But the frank confession of the truth is a work of art in which we recognize ourselves. We forgive her because we see in her all the unthinking dishonesties by which we have harmed others and ourselves. In her need for us, we recognize our own need for forgiving readers.