Unreliable witnesses

Last week I saw Atonement and left the cinema overwhelmed with the feeling  that I’d just witnessed a film that might  be a modern classic; a film that makes you realise you’ve been happily surviving on formulaic fast food and now you’ve had a taste of the gourmet.

I love the fact that it’s a British movie that dares to be unapologetically large scale. I love the fact that it plays narrative games and still manages to be moving. And I love the irony of a   heritage blockbuster that has the word ‘cunt’ as its major plot point.

I hadn’t seen Pride and Prejudice last year, so I knew nothing about director Joe Wright, though I remember chuckling at the trailers and thinking they’d made the mistake of filming an Austen novel as if it were a Bronte novel. It seemed far too dramatic for Austen’s acutely observed world of manners.

I guess many people who saw it  felt the same, because once I’d seen Atonement and started googling it, I was surprised to discover some venemous criticism of it. You know, the kind of criticism that seems a bit too vehement and out of place and has its roots in issues from long ago and makes the critic look like a bit of a tosser.

It’s symptomatic of a growing air of hyper-critical nonsense I’ve noticed everywhere I look these days. We live in the age of the laptop critic. In order to stand out in cyberspace you have to have an opinion. And negative opinion makes you sound more intelligent than positive opinion.

Negative opinion implies the kind of hidden intelligence and discernment that the slovenly pandering of positive opinion can only aspire to. If you want to appear intelligent, slag something off. Slag everything off. The more things you slag off, the more intelligent you will appear.

And some of the flak for Atonement on internet chat boards has been jaw-dropping in its pettiness.

According to the trolls, Atonement‘s Dunkirk scenes are ‘very unconvincing’, ‘the arrogance of the director overwhelms any tension or emotional impact’, and it all falls apart due to the ‘historical innacuracies on behalf of the director, e.g. a four-engined heavy bomber flying over England in 1935. The Dunkirk scenes were cringeworthy. Was there such strong anti-French sentiment expressed by English soldiers during the war? Questionable I’d say – more the fantasy of the director’. [All correct spelling and grammar are my own]

And so on and so forth.

Well, actually, anyone who’s studied real life accounts of the people who took part in that war (and I’ve got a shelf full of books devoted to the subject) will know that the movies of the 1950s (much as I love them) don’t really give us the true picture. The British Tommy was a far from politically correct beast. So I can quite imagine a bitter, retreating BEF squaddie slagging off the French. I’m only surprised he didn’t lay into the Jews as well, as a great many who wanted to avoid a war with Germany did at the time.

In that vein, I was particularly pleased with the stirring rendition of Fuck ’em all, which might sound anachronistic if you’re used to war movies starring Dirk Bogarde and Kenneth More but was a genuine infantry favourite of the time, as one old war veteran I once got pissed with was very fond of demonstrating at high volume. I’d always thought it was the bowdlerised version of George Formby’s ‘Bless em all’, but researching this article I’m pleased to discover that the adult version was the original.

As for the four-engined bomber flying over England in 1935, yes, it’s totally inaccurate, and I believe it’s totally deliberate. The clue is in the line about Briony being ‘an unreliable witness’.

Everything we see in  Atonement is the novel (Two Figures by a Fountain) that Briony is writing, and it contains all the historical inaccuracies a teenage girl would have committed to paper. Everything we see is her fictitious account of events, even the flashbacks to take in alternative viewpoints. Would she make the mistake of having her character gaze at an anachronistic bomber flying above? Yes, I believe she would. And that is the only reason that shot is in the film.

But it’s far too subtle a clue for the trolls, it would appear.

Having seen Atonement once, I couldn’t resist nipping back to the cinema a couple of days later to immerse myself in it again. For once, it looks like the film of the year might well be a British film. And that’s something to be proud of.

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