Men of Letters
Posted on January 6, 2016
Atonement aired recently on free-to-air television (SBS).
If you haven’t seen it, it’s a 2007 English movie based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan (screen adaptation by Christopher Hampton) and follows the lives of young lovers Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). When the couple are torn apart by a lie constructed by Cecilia’s jealous younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), all three of them must deal with the consequences.
The opening title sequence and scene transitions are punctuated by the sound of a typewriter, which serves to remind us that what we are watching is a story within a story: The story written by McEwan and the story written by a grown-up Briony Tallis.
Two Figures by a Fountain
Right from the start of the movie, 11 year-old Briony cuts her literary teeth by writing a stage play on a Corona 4 portable.
Events conspire to thwart the performance of Briony’s play however (spoiler alert), when the daughter of a friend of the family (one of several house guests) becomes the victim of a violent sexual assault.
Briony fingers Robbie Turner (the handsome part-gentrified son-of-a-housekeeper) as the culprit after she misinterprets a fountain scene, and an argument, between Robbie and her elder sister Cecilia.
After watching Cecilia strip to her (flesh-coloured) underwear and jump into a fountain to retrieve a broken trophy handle that has fallen into the water, Robbie returns to his quarters, sits in front of a Royal typewriter, and types up several abortive drafts of a sexually-charged love note.
He eventually gives up on the typewriter and pens a note to Cecilia by hand (possibly a continuity error because the letter that finally gets delivered is typewritten).
Since the note contains two occurrences of the rudest four-letter word in the English language and is clearly intended for Cecilia’s eyes only, Robbie’s fatal mistake is to ask Briony to deliver the note to Cecilia by hand.
This was a sumptuous production that I enjoyed from start to finish. Even the second world war scenes – war scenes usually being that point in a movie at which I lose interest – were beautifully crafted by director Joe Wright and his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey.
While Robbie and two battle-scarred soldiers wander the French countryside after becoming separated from their unit on the eve of Dunkirk, Briony – now grown-up (but still very much in possession of her Corona 4) – volunteers as a nurse to help the war effort and seeks to atone for the wrong she’s done.
Just when you think the movie has gone on too long, and is possibly going nowhere except down the path of delivering a formulaic happy ending, an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) comes out of left-field and delivers an ending that leaves you feeling satisfied (or at least that’s how I felt).
Like his fellow writer and friend, Martin Amis, McEwan poses with an Olivetti Lettera 32.
What’s clear from the movie, and from an article Mother Tongue published in The Guardian on October 13th 2001, is that Ian McEwan understands the possible ramifications of a hastily-written letter:
… At home, there was violence in the air. There always had been, but only now could I really see it for what it was, and begin to judge it. My father, I know, felt he had a right to it, and it was no one’s business but his own. When I was visiting my parents in the late 70s, Rose told me the latest. I was inclined to believe her and I offered to talk to David. The idea horrified her. It would make things worse when I went. That week he gave me as a late birthday present, an Olivetti portable typewriter. I was grateful – my old machine was falling apart. But the first thing I wrote on it, in a tiny bedroom upstairs, was a letter to my father which I gave to Rose to keep. She was to give it to him if she was threatened again. In it I told David that I loved him. I also told him that hitting Rose was a criminal act, and that if necessary I would come from England and see both the military police and his commanding officer. It turned out she destroyed the letter the week after I left. She said she couldn’t sleep at night knowing it was in the house. Matters went on much as before, and what settled the problem in the end was only mellowing age, illness and growing dependency.
The memory of another letter from that time still makes me smile and wince, and remains a caution. Speed kills. Late one Friday morning, just before leaving my flat, I typed an indignant few lines to the Spectator concerning some slight I thought I had received in its pages the week before. Generally a mistake to complain, but I hadn’t learned that yet. I put a carbon in my pocket and hurried off to a Friday lunch in Bertorelli’s. At some point in the conversation, as the main course was being served, the Spectator article about me came up. I produced my stinging reply, and it was passed around the table, from Clive James, to Mark Boxer, Martin Amis to Karl Miller, from Christopher Hitchens to Terry Kilmartin to Peter Porter to Julian Barnes. Gratifying that, having the writers and critics whose opinion I valued most read my letter. There was general silence, then some throat clearing, and a move to change the subject as Jeremy Treglown, who had seen the carbon last, cupped his hand and murmured kindly in my ear “There’s a dangler in the first sentence”. Dah! – as Amis and Hitchens liked to say. In the first word. That indignantly detached participle. “Sir, Having destroyed my meaning with dishonestly juxtaposed quotation, I find myself perplexed by your reviewer’s sudden concession to probity when . . .”