There I was, waxing lyrical somewhere or the other about how much I love the autumn, and here I am now, nursing a cold, watching the teeming rain through the sash window as it makes the giant oat grass bow down under its weight. Hello, weather gods! I meant autumn sans cold and avec clear blue days of brilliant slanting light. Hmm. That’s changeability for you. I also waxed lyrical about Fougere Bengale a couple of weeks back, and now my bottle is destined to be stuck in transit somewhere for the time being; a postal strike of almost a week was announced immediately after I ordered it. Anticipation is sometimes the best part of desire though, isn’t it? So, I’m telling myself this is all small fry really, when there’s so much in life of interest and goodness. See what a chirpy chappy I am, even as I blow my nose, sounding like a whale exhaling?
Two things have shaped the title of today’s post, the first filmic and the second (watch for the feeble segueway!) scented. Bear with me.
Here in the UK we normally get to see films / movies several weeks after you’ve had ’em in the States. Junkets etc, I’ve always thought. Once in a while though, especially with the home-brewed variety, we trump you. And so it came to pass that Atonement, starring Keira Knightley (quit with the hissing, wouldja?) and James McAvoy was released at the start of September, and it doesn’t hit your shores until December, I believe.
Damn, it’s worth waiting for. I loved the book, but then I’m quite the McEwan fanboy. Except for a few misses (Amsterdam), his novels manage that exceptional balance between literary flourish and gripping narrative. For example, if you’ve not tried it, I heartily recommend the opening sequence of Enduring Love – a ballooning accident occurs, and the tale is retold and reshaped by its witnesses. It’s a masterpiece of thrilling literary writing. It also deals with a couple of McEwan’s concerns that resurface in new forms in Atonement; namely, how we restructure narratives in our memory after they have occurred (the old ‘What is truth?’ shenanigans), and how we deal with guilt.
I’m as sentimental as they come when it’s visual – I cry with absurd ease at the cinema. All I need is a trailer. Strings playing in a minor key? Check. Sweeping establishing shot followed by cut to face of despair? Check. Lee’s eyes welling with tears, a tremble on his lips? Check. But with novels, it’s trickier. Generally, they engage my intellect more effectively than they do my heart. Yet, with Atonement, by the end, the welling, the tremble and the intellectual satisfaction were all there. That book punched me in the gut like no other. McEwan’s often accused of being too cerebral – read the ending of this novel and still say that, and I’ll say there’s something wrong with you. Probably.
The story has four sections. First, the hottest day of the summer, 1935. Grand house in Surrey. 13 year old Briony Tallis watches something occur between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, Cambridge educated son of the house’s charlady. She misinterprets and by the end of the day has wilfully shaped her story to affect all of their futures. This is the slow part of the novel (to me, beautifully so), where particular events are recast from different perspectives, so that the reader knows more than any of the participants. Second, 1940, northern France. The British are retreating to Dunkirk. Robbie Turner, with two other soldiers, is attempting to reach the coast without being bombed, shot or otherwise waylaid. Cecilia, through letters and his memories of their love, is calling him to return. Third, 1940, London. Briony Tallis is in her first year of nursing, instead of studying at Girton, Cambridge, and witnesses the arrival of the troops from France. The final section, a coda outside the frame of the novel proper, is in first person, and occurs in 1999. Briony Tallis is going to attend her 77th birthday party. She completes the story for us.
The sections are tied together with remarkable flair and exceptional writing. There are sentences here to linger over and love. And I though when I read the novel on publication that it was unfilmable – the shifting narrative perspective, the repetitive structure of the first act (which takes up half of the book), the final first person viewpoint (and no spoilers here as to why). But the film is wondrous. To begin with, it’s exceptionally beautiful, like watching a series of exquisite paintings brought together into a story. The hot summer is captured with impressionistic lyricism and wondrous editing. Overgrown borders, heat hazes, languor, pent-up desire – it’s all there. This of course contrasts remarkably with the loss of saturated colour for Dunkirk and pre-Blitz London, alongside a bravura four minute shot of the beach as we follow Robbie’s fading hope in the face of disaster. It’s a ‘I can’t get it out of my head’ film, and even though I had a few quibbles – I always do! – it continues to haunt me.
Most impressive of all is the cast. Keira Knightley has faced plenty of criticism in the press here, for her inability to act, her skinniness, (insert anything here that goes along with the current misanthropic vein of British tabloid journalism). Here, she shows she’s a film star, up with the best of them. She assumes the clipped vowels of pre-war received pronunciation, and these combine perfectly with her frequently petulant poutface. But it’s James McAvoy who carries the film. You’ll fall in love with him, guaranteed, even if you’re old enough to be his ma or pa.
Anyway, enough of my rambling. Go here for more if you want, including some footage of the film itself. Watch the letter writing sequence for a sense of wonder, alongside an alternative glimpse of the ideas director Joe Wright also used in the Coco Mademoiselle ad.
See, I did get to scent. I don’t imagine Cecilia Tallis wearing Coco Mademoiselle, as it happens. (She does apply perfume in the novel – to her elbows, curiously – or at least, that’s what I remember). Instead, she’s the type for a difficult chypre or a grown-up’s oriental (Coco?), something with a powerfully animalic base, or with dark hiding behind the glitter.
Nuit Noire perhaps, or Ormonde Woman. And there’s my real segueway. Cos I was killing time yesterday surfing around, debating whether to buy a bottle of Ormonde Man, just because, when I spotted that the Ormonde Jayne site is now open to international orders – sample sets and everything. How long has it been like this? I know OJ perfumes were all the rage on blogs and boards a while back, rekindled by the launch of Orris Noir, but I’ve not seen them mentioned for a while. They are exceptional, British-made scents. I love Champaca (though not for me) and Ormonde Man (for me!), and there are several others worthy of adoration too. In the spirit of rekindling some OJ love (and I don’t mean the recently arrested former star), I have three spray vials of OJ florals – and Orris Noir – to give away to one lucky commenter. Just let me know if you want to be in the draw.
I also want to hear your thoughts on Atonement.
A man obsessed (and not just with pretty boy McAvoy).