Mark Greene explores a bleak view of existence in the big screen adaptation of Ian McEwan ’ s finest novel.
Ian McEwan has come a long way since the days when his menacing, somewhat morbid tales of deviancy and dysfunctionality earned him the nickname ‘Ian MacAbre’. Today, ten novels and five film adaptations later, he is regarded by many literary critics as one of Britain’s finest living novelists. Amsterdam won the Booker Prize in 1998 and his new novel, On Chesil Beach, is shortlisted for this year’s award.
Atonement (2001) is arguably his finest work and well deserves the accomplished and judicious film adaptation with the impressive Keira Knightley elegantly slipping the shackles of her pirate past into the role of a 1930s upper-class graduate of moral spine and loyal heart. It is a deftly photographed, wonderfully acted and moving film, though perhaps not the masterpiece that some have hailed it.(2001) is arguably his finest work and well deserves the accomplished and judicious film adaptation with the impressive Keira Knightley elegantly slipping the shackles of her pirate past into the role of a 1930s upper-class graduate of moral spine and loyal heart. It is a deftly photographed, wonderfully acted and moving film, though perhaps not the masterpiece that some have hailed it.
Like Enduring Love and On Chesil Beach, Atonement is about the prolonged reverberations of a single event. In Enduring Love it was about the implications of one man letting go of the mooring rope of a hot air balloon, whilst another holds on, is hoisted into the sky, inevitably runs out of strength and falls to his death. What prompted this individualistic act of selfishness, when only collective effort would rescue the situation?
In On Chesil Beach, set in the 1950s, McEwan, almost in sermonic mode, explores the fears of a young, sexually inexperienced couple as they approach the consummation of their marriage. On the night in question, a single act of loveless impatience destroys the marriage and, in the case of the bridegroom, reduces what might have been an exceptional life into an existence not merely ordinary but essentially unlived. It is too an implicit critique of our own times where the myth that sexual experience is assumed, sexual expertise easily acquired and sexual ecstasy always delivered casts a chill shadow on many a couple’s explorations.
Living a lieIn Atonement both novel and film, the story turns on a lie and its terrible consequences. It is 1935. Briony, a thirteen year old with a vivid imagination, sees her older twentysomething sister Cecilia out in the grounds of their large house in heated conversation with Robbie, the bright twenty-something son of the cleaner. Suddenly, Cecilia removes her outer garments and jumps into the nearby fountain, submerses herself and then re-emerges. What can this act mean? What has Robbie done to her older sister to cause her to do this? The 13 year old’s fertile but immature imagination jumps to conclusions that cause her to see all that follows through the lens of her hasty and false interpretation.
The result is that Robbie is accused of raping Briony’s slightly older cousin – a lie that the cousin also spends the rest of her life upholding. The lovers are separated. But will they be reunited? All the conventions of post 18th century Western fiction, in print and celluloid, suggest they will but, as with most love stories, the question for the viewer is how and when.
The book explores many themes – social class, interpretation and misinterpretation, the role of the artist in presenting truth and offering hope, the nature of true love and its recognition, selfishness and selfprotection – but McEwan’s title identifies the book’s central concern. And here, alas, it becomes important to give away the ending because the ending, brilliant and surprising as it is, forces the reader to completely reevaluate all that has gone before. So, if you don’t want to know, look away NOW.
The question that McEwan is posing is this: What do you do when you have lied and your words have had terrible, irreversible consequences for people you love? How do you live? In clenched denial? In paralysing remorse? In optimistic pursuit of reconciliation? In determined campaigning for the promotion and acceptance of the truth? What do any of us do with the chaos we cause? And what do we do when the death of people we have maligned or hurt blocks the road to reconciliation forever?
This is the problem that Briony faces. Yes, the story leads us to the conclusion that Cecilia and Robbie’s love is consummated, but at the end, we discover this version of events is a tale that Briony, now a novelist, has invented. In ‘real’ life, Robbie dies at Dunkirk and Cecilia in the Blitz. True love has been frustrated, the lovers die, the cousin’s lies are not exposed, and the true identity of the rapist is not revealed. Justice is not done. It is just a terrible waste. Faced by the utter futility of such a conclusion, Briony, the novelist, looks for a way to ‘atone’ for her lie.
How then shall she live? Indeed, she asks herself what purpose would be served by telling the truth: “What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in service of the bleakest realism?” Atonement, p371) Briony ‘atones’ by writing a story in which the lovers experience the happiness in fiction that her lies prevented them enjoying in life. She ‘forges’ a way out of the meaninglessness of their deaths. However, neither in the book nor in Vanessa Redgrave’s subtle cinematic interpretation, is there any abiding solace for Briony, or indeed for us.
An alternative salvation
Still, Briony’s attempt at salvation by fictional work has its nobility. After all, to imagine Cecilia and Robbie’s life if she had not betrayed them, is to force herself to look four square at the consequences of her actions. This is what I have destroyed: this destined union, this soaring joy, this beautiful and true and rare treasure. How many of us, would do that? How many of us really consider the consequences of our lies and sins? How many of us think to ourselves: here is what would have happened if only I hadn’t, this is the potential that I guillotined, the hope that I smothered, the joy that I stamped on?
Of course, for all its nobility, Briony’s prolonged penance of a lifetime of selfflagellation and guilt is a bitter and unnecessary burden. For the followers of the true Atoner, there is a path to forgiveness. Ian McEwan, however, is an atheist and for Briony, the liar in his story, there is no God to limit the consequences of her sin, turn them to good or even break the corrosive power of the guilt that goads her.
McEwan’s brilliance is to do precisely what Briony has avoided - he is prepared to confront his readers with the bleakest realism but he does so in a way that unveils the illusions that we would rather live with. First, he tantalises us with the ending that the conventions of contemporary Western literature draw us to – that true love ends happily ever after, that redemption is possible – and then he shatters it.
And by doing so, he exposes the inadequacy of Briony’s tale – if her tale is not true then it offers us no real comfort. It is a nihilist vision.
The power of fiction
So it is that by shattering the conventions of popular romantic fiction, McEwan actually calls into question the whole role of the arts in general. The novelist should use fiction to bring us truth, if not ‘truth’ in terms of facts, then at least ‘truth’ as they see it about the nature of the world. But what if the hope offered is illusory? What if it is an opiate? Something to make us feel good but which prevents us from dealing with reality, which stops us from seeking to change the system? What if all those action hero movies don’t actually serve to make us go out into the world and fight evil wherever we find it, but actually, by allowing ourselves to be injected with a vicarious high, make us feel that we’ve already done our bit? What if all this ‘artistic output’ is merely propaganda for a way of life that doesn’t exist but comforts us with the hope that it does?
What if those films more often serve to inoculate us against moral activism than stimulate us towards it? What if all those romantic comedies about young women finding the ‘one’ who rescues them from a lesser life of prostitution (Pretty Woman), relative poverty (Maid in Manhattan) or low status obscurity (Cinderella Story) are actually deeply pernicious in their idealism and their failure to explore and help us overcome the very real difficulties of constructing deep, stable, loving relationships? Well, then, bah, humbug to the lot of it. It’s not edifying, it’s destructive. And in that McEwan is right. Yet, sadly, he seems to have nothing to offer in its place. It is the same charge that Marx brought against religion – it is an opiate of the masses. For him, it was a necessary opiate, a tool of social control. The ruling elites foster religious illusions in the general population so as to prevent them from rising up and changing the status quo. After all, it is only the hope of reward in heaven that keeps impoverished, oppressed workers from seeking more actively to change the wretched conditions of their present lives. Take heaven out of the equation and then there is only this life. So indeed today’s ruling elites foster consumerist, escapist, romantic illusions that distract us from the true emptiness of the overloaded, frenetic existence that they don’t want us to escape from – it will kill their profits.
McEwan’s is a grim conclusion and certainly it takes courage to embrace such a bleak view of existence. But perhaps it also takes a certain wilful artistic stubbornness, and even a certain artistic dishonesty. After all, Briony lives in a Christian country through a century of bloodshed. It is at one level simply unbelievable that she would not even begin to explore the Christian atonement that so many of her compatriots found both real and potent. Is this artistic honesty? Or McEwan’s own determination not to look at the possibility himself? Sometimes people put the blinkers on themselves.
Furthermore, is there not also a failure of imagination? Is there no way to see any worth or true value in Robbie’s determined love for Cecilia and in hers for him, even though it is not fully realised? Were their lives truly rendered meaningless by the consequences of Briony’s lies? Whatever our own answer, Atonement’s moving portrait of the emptiness of life without God is a present and a future that you wouldn’t wish on anyone. And a haunting reminder that it is precisely such a present that millions in our country are living in and precisely such a future that millions in our country are facing.
Mark Greene is the executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.