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October 04, 2007

David Womersley asks, are writers moral? And can films adequately deal with this question? Ian McEwan's Atonement - Joe Wright

Posted by David Womersley

Directed by Joe Wright
certificate 15, 2007

Both the film and the novel Atonement deals with the question, are writers moral? And, are writers bound by conventional morality? David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - asks if a film can adequately tackle these questions.

Are writers moral? Plato famously banished all artists from his ideal republic, on the grounds that they exercised a corrupting influence. Since antiquity large claims have periodically been made for the moral benefits of literature, and for the past two centuries or so it has been the novel which has most often been cited as the embodiment of literature's potential to be a source of moral wisdom. In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen famously defended the novel against its detractors as a form

in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.
In The Great Tradition F. R. Leavis identified a small core of novelists - Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad, Lawrence - as the foremost moral writers (he would have rejected the implications of abstraction in the term "thinkers") in English. But are these large claims true?

They might seem vulnerable in two respects. Firstly, one might think that the novel's incorporation of a significant element of fantasy and romance vitiates its claim to be a moral theatre. The novelist's thumb is too heavily in the scales for us to take the novel - or any other literary form - entirely at its own estimation. The obvious rejoinder to this objection (which is essentially a concern about what it is that works of art represent) is that literary works provide, not experience, but a commentary on experience diffused and transposed into narrative. How far this restriction of the novel to the domain of moral opinion is fatal to its claims to being a form of moral knowledge is itself a matter of opinion.

A different kind of disquiet focuses, not on the work of literary art itself, but on the artist. The shaping imperative which rules the artist can easily be presented in a less flattering light: as meddling, improper curiosity, prurience, the denial of autonomy to others in pursuit of its own aesthetic satisfactions. Viewed like this, the artistic temperament is not a chalice of moral wisdom; rather, it is a source of moral blindness dressed up as insight, and the artist is a peddler of poisons labelled as medicines.

Atonement tackles these issues with great directness and also great subtlety. Set to begin with in a country house during the late 1930s, it tells how three lives - those of Briony Tallis, a young girl with ambitions to be a writer, of her older sister Cecilia, and of Cecilia's lover Robbie, the son of a cleaning lady who had been supported through university by the Tallis family and who is training to be a doctor - were permanently damaged by a mixture of error, resentment and malice to which Briony is susceptible because - so it is suggested - of her writerly, interpretative and shaping disposition.

Early in the film we see Briony bossily directing her cousins in a play she has written. Later, she misinterprets something she oversees between Robbie and Cecilia, and then, on the basis of that misinterpretation, culpably and knowingly incriminates Robbie in an offence of under-age rape, as a result of which Cecilia and Robbie's lives are blighted. As Cecilia says to one of the policemen investigating the rape,

I wouldn't believe everything Briony tells you. She's very fanciful.
Briony's crime - the knowing and wrongful identification of Robbie as the rapist - is directly related to, indeed is an expression of, her writerliness.

Briony attempts to expiate this wrong. She works as a nurse during the war, as does Cecilia. Robbie meanwhile enlists as a way of getting out of prison, and is part of the British Expeditionary Force awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk. At this point, the novel and the film (the adaptation has been executed with great astuteness by Christopher Hampton) become particularly complicated and interesting. We are shown Briony visiting Cecilia and Robbie in digs in south London, apologising to them, and we are invited to believe that some kind of atonement has indeed been achieved; that Briony's crime will not have any enduring ill-effects and that, if full reparation is impossible, nevertheless Cecilia and Robbie will be released into a future where they can pursue their lives together.

We then move forward nearly sixty years, in the novel to a section written in the first person by Briony, in the film (a clever touch) to an interview with Briony, who is now a famous novelist, and who has written a fictional account of these events. We learn that the visit to Balham, the apology, and the future life of Cecilia and Robbie are all yet more inventions by Briony, just like her identification of Robbie as the rapist: they figure in her novel, but never happened. In fact, Robbie died of septicaemia on the eve of being evacuated from Dunkirk, Cecilia died in an air raid on London, and Briony never had the courage to apologise. The reason Briony gives for this final act of fictionalising is fascinating. Reflecting on the earlier "pitiless" drafts, she says:

How could that constitute an ending? 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 the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn't do it to them.
But isn't this just as deluded and selfish as her earlier piece of fictionalising, namely the false incrimination of Robbie - just another elevation of her private aesthetic satisfactions over the needs and rights of others, the crowning hypocrisy being the claim that the happier ending is preferred out of consideration for "them". As T. S. Eliot said, with careful bluntness, about Othello's final speech, he is just cheering himself up; and exactly the same can be said of Briony. Is this "happy" ending any kind of atonement, or just another crime, just another evasion of responsibility?

Atonement is beautifully filmed, and includes a set of fine performances (including a wonderful cameo from Vanessa Redgrave as the old Briony). Keira Knightley has been subjected to criticism about her acting ability, but she is excellent as the brittle, tense, but also strong Cecilia. Best of all, however, is Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony: sharp, intelligent, blind, spoiled, and betrayed by her faith in her own acuity into committing a terrible, inexpiable, wrong.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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Ars gratia artis, certes, but art is NOT the justification of art.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 15, 2007 07:24 PM
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