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December 21, 2007


Briony I find it oddly appropriate that two movies about atonement have been released so close to Christmas. One of them is actually titled Atonement. The other is The Kite Runner. Each one deals with a child who commits a great sin, the terrible consequences of that sin, and the desire to make atonement.

I haven't seen either film, but I have been reading, or rather listening to on CD, Atonement. Not so much because of the movie, as because the professor of the English novels course from The Teaching Company said it was good. And it is good (though, like the film, most definitely not for children). It's almost -- almost -- good enough to make me forgive that professor for persuading me to read Middlemarch as well. But I digress.

Don't be misled by all the dreamy romantic gazes and whispers between Keira Knightley and her soldier boy that you may have seen in the commercials for the film. At the heart of Atonement is that angelic-looking little blonde girl who takes up just a few inches of space on the movie posters, and the havoc she wreaks on the lives around her. Novelist Ian McEwan, as you may gather from this, hardly subscribes to a Victorian view of the innocence of childhood. The Bad Seed might be a closer parallel to his way of thinking.

But then again, not really. Because this little girl, Briony Tallis, doesn't intentionally cause harm. The thing that makes Briony such a complex and, to some of us, even a sympathetic character is that she's a budding writer with a mania for orderly narratives, for making things make sense. As McEwan writes, she is "possessed by the desire to have the world just so." Over the course of one long day, Briony becomes an involuntary witness to a series of events that her 13-year-old mind is not mature enough to understand. She reacts by composing her own mental narrative to make sense of it all -- the only narrative that appears logical to her -- and imposing that narrative on real life. As Tony Watkins puts it in a thoughtful review of the book and film (warning, it has some pretty big spoilers),

There is something irrational about Briony’s behaviour on the fateful summer day, but the irrationality was the wrong imaginative leap she made. Having jumped the wrong way, she proceeds rationally to expose the truth about the man she had concluded was dangerous. . . . The real peril of hasty conclusions comes when someone rationally, doggedly follows through the implications of a false idea, regardless of what it entails for others, rather than admitting the shakiness of the foundations and allowing others to reflect on them.

So, having convinced herself that she saw something that she didn't really see, Briony proceeds, from (mostly) the purest and noblest motives, to wreck a man's life.

The story abounds in ironies about the writing life and about human nature in general, one of which is that Briony's "godlike powers of creation" (or something like that; the worst of books on CD is that you can never find an exact quote when you want it) are the instrument of destructiveness. But an even deeper irony is the way she will later use these same powers to try to make up for what she has done. Without giving too much away, Briony's great attempt at atonement comes across as pathetically inadequate, even self-absorbed -- and yet, still, many of us can relate all too well. She is still doing her best to make things be the way they should be, but at bottom, her last attempt, even though it comes from a much older, more sophisticated, more understanding Briony, is no more successful than her first.

The story is a thought-provoking, deeply humbling one, reflecting as it does the futility of human attempts to make life make sense, and to try to atone for our failures by ourselves. Which brings me back to the appropriateness of a Christmas release for this film and for the other recent film about atonement. That other film, The Kite Runner, has a tagline that I find peculiarly haunting, and that probably would have appealed to Briony Tallis as well: "There is a way to be good again." If there is, it's only because of a Child born in Bethlehem -- the only human being who was and is able to fully understand, fully judge, and fully atone.

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anne morse

If you like stories about great childish sins and lifelong attempts at atonement, you should read "The Story of Lucy Gault,by the Irish writer William Trevor. I did--and I'll never be able to get the story out of my mind.

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