'Atonement' didn't deserve any Oscars
Charlie Hegarty Notebook
Schadenfreude is a miserable little vice; let me make that clear. Having got that off my chest. I now confess to having experienced it when I learnt that the film Atonement had not won any important Oscars in this year's awards ceremony. The Oscars occasion is a vulgar carnival and it has been known to miss classic films (such as Some Like It Hot), but this year it got it right. Atonement. as one reviewer put it quite correctly, is "melodrama by numbers"; and the book-ofthe-film, lacking the cinematic advantage of the sultry, pouting presence of Keifa Knightley, is strictly for the airport lounge. Atonement is a heavyweight theme and in struggling to attack it Ian McEwan is punching well above his imaginative capacity. These thoughts were in my mind on a long car journey recently, listening to a tape cassette of Alec Guinness reading his autobiography of his early life, Blessings in Disguise. Here was one of our greatest actors describing in his diffident, almost expressionless voice, the luck and the talent that propelled him towards his art. Like the poet Keats, acting for Guinness was a matter of negative capability: the sensitivity to sink his own personality into a role and then electrify audiences with the character thus created. One of his most memorable performances was as Major Jock Sinclair in the film Tunes of Glory. Directed by Ronald Neame (who also directed Brief Encounter), it is the story of how one man, Sinclair, sets out to destroy another: his commanding officer, Colonel Basil Barrow, played by John Mills. It is an absorbing drama of jealousy, rivalry and passionate loyalty to a battalion and it culminates in the Colonel shooting himself in despair.
Suddenly and too late Sinclair realises the full horror of what he has done. although the major is brash, profane and a drinker. Guinness nonetheless manages to convey the full agony of his remorse. He knows that what has happened is murder rather than suicide and that he is to blame. What atonement can he make for his crime? The final scene of the film played itself over in my mind as I drove up the M1 listening to Guinness's toneless voice. Sinclair, stricken by his conscience, decides that all that is left to him is to honour his enemy in death even as he dishonoured him in life. In a futile attempt to make amends he dreams up plans for a funeral fit for a Field Marshal, with all the pomp and ceremony — the tunes of glory — that the battalion can muster. The audience watches his contorted features and listens to his strangulated words as Sinclair/Guinness bares his soul; easily one of his finest performances.
Guinness was a convert. In a charming vignette in his autobiography he says this came about when he was playing Chesterton's Father. Brown, filmed in France in 1954. In the lunch hour, wandering down the village street and still wearing his soutane, he was met by a small boy who assumed he was a priest, took his hand and chattered away to him in incomprehensible French. Guinness reflected that a Church which inspired such trust in the young must be worth knowing.
Tunes of Glory was not made until 1960, so one can speculate that he brought a heightened Catholic awareness of remorse and expiation to his imaginative interpretation of the role he played. Ode might further speculate that to attempt the subject of atonement at all, a novelist needs to be homo naturaliter religiosus; McEwan, clever, fluent, post-modern to his fingertips, lacks the inner resources for such a theme. Perhaps he should watch this minor classic — and recognise he is a bantamweight at best.