Magazine article The Christian Century

Chaotic Imagination

Magazine article The Christian Century

Chaotic Imagination

Article excerpt

GREAT STORIES touch on many themes and give us a long list of things that they could be said to be "about." As I tell my students, if you think Moby-Dick is just about whale- hunting, you weren't paying attention. Atonement, based on the best-selling 1992 novel by British author Ian McEwan, is an ambitious tale that explores guilt, forgiveness, remorse, family jealousies, inequities of the class system, the power of imagination, the role of the artist and the sanctity of the creative process. It is also a love story, which is where many such sprawling epics begin and end.

The tale starts at a fancy country estate on a hot day in 1935. A lazy weekend of swimming, drinking and eating is planned, complete with visiting cousins and a new pal of the family's only son. The key players in the drama of the day are 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a budding playwright who longs to be older and more sophisticated; her elder sister, Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), who has just graduated from Cambridge and seems at loose ends; and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the family housekeeper's son who also attended Cambridge, thanks to the generosity of the Tallis clan, and who hopes to study medicine.

What transpires at the Tallis estate on this oppressively hot and sticky day will affect not only the principals in the drama but every single supporting player for the remainder of their lives. Simmering passion starts to boil over as the day progresses, fueled by a D. H. Lawrence-like moment near the estate's stately fountain. Cecilia and Robbie ignore their class differences to declare their true feelings. Briony, who has a crush on the handsome Robbie, happens to see what is going on. Employing a toxic combination of anger, fear, resentment and imagination, she kick-starts a series of events that quickly move from innocent to tragic as the supporting players take their turns in the spotlight. …

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