Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Media Watch: Ramifications of misconduct examined in film, novel
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the June 13, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)
In a world where we in the Catholic Church struggle with a crisis of the abuse of children and a failure of leadership, there is a new British novel that draws us into the personal crisis of a family suffering from the ramifications of accusations of sexual misconduct. These accusations lead to excruciating consequences that survive from 1935 until 1999. The name of this riveting novel is, appropriately, Atonement (Doubleday, 2002, $26). The author is Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan.
At an old and picturesque English estate relatives are gathering for a formal dinner on a very warm summer day in 1935. The Tallis family has a father who is rarely home because he works for the government. He is caught up in war preparations and his own unfaithfulness.
His wife Emily suffers extremely debilitating migraine headaches that keep her in her bedroom in the dark until just before dinner.
Her younger daughter, Briony, is a precociouis 13-year-old teenager who sees herself as a budding playwright. She plans to have her visiting cousins help put on her latest work. Her cousins have other plans; the young twins, especially, are bored to death and will not participate. Briony is very disappointed. But in a very real sense she finds herself in the middle of a drama involving her older sister, Cecilia and a housekeeperís son by the name of Robbie Turner.
The initial sexual awakening of Cecilia and Robbie as seen by Briony sets the scene for and evening after dinner when Robbie is accused of a crime by Briony that changes lives and calls for reconciliation and atonement.
There is relatively little dialogue in Atonement so this is not a fast read for a plane trip. Author Ian McEwan is a powerful stylist of the English language. You want to read his novel slowly and savor every minute of it.
A standout feature of the novel is the different points of view from which the story is told. There is a always a certain mystery. Is one character giving us reality or is reality being deeply skewed by his or her vision of realty?
Atonement is tremendously evocative of the place of the action of the story. From an English manor, seemingly so peaceful, to the violence of the Battle of Dunkirk and a London hospital, about to be bombed while packed with violently wounded soldiers, to a posh hotel for a family gathering 60-plus years later you clearly see the places you find yourself in.
McEwan wonderfully lets us into the inner being of each of his main characters. We know their most secret thoughts and emotions.
Readers with any interest in World War II will be fascinated by the march of Robbie and two corporals across the French and Belgian countryside to the dangerous beach of Dunkirk.
But it is the ethical and moral center of Atonement that makes it so powerful. It is a novel that makes the you question your own actions and how they affect the people you love.
The ending is surprising and hangs in your memory as you recount the story and its meaning. Atonement doesnít solve the crisis we in the Catholic Church face. But it does push us to wonder ďwhat if?Ē and asks us to try, no matter how we have failed to atone.
In Woody Alienís film Crimes and Misdemeanors the main character, an eye doctor, hires a hit man to kill his lover. The overwrought lover had continually threatened to expose the doctorís adultery to his wife and family. Alienís disturbing thesis is that you can commit an extraordinary crime and get on with life. Eventually there is no guilt and you get away with it.
Adrian Lyne directs the new film, Unfaithful, from the opposite point of view. He argues In a script based on the French director Claude Chabrolís La Femme Infidele that choices of passion have everlasting effects on those we love. The crime of passion leads to a conscience that wonít let go of the event.
Connie Sumner (Diane Lane) is an upper-middle-class wife and mother living north of New York City near the Hudson River. She appears to be married happily to her handsome husband Edward (Richard Gere). They have a cute and lively son named Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan) whose humor almost steals this very thought-provoking movie.
Connie is in the Soho area of the city, getting materials for an upcoming school fund-raiser. It is an unbelievably windy day. She falls on top of a French book seller and scrapes her leg. Instead of taking a taxi, admittedly hard to find, Connie accepts the book seller, Paul Martenís (Oliver Martinez) invitation to clean herself up in his apartment just a few steps away. Within a few minutes she finds herself in danger of being seduced. She leaves quickly but is drawn back time and time again to commit adultery with Paul. Her passion becomes an obsession as she lies to her husband, her son and her friends. She has moments of great ecstasy and later painful moments of suffering.
Edward eventually hires a private detective who presents him with loads of incriminating pictures of Connie and Paul together going to French films and spending hours in Paulís apartment.
The movie heats up as Paul and Edward finally meet in Paulís apartment where Edward discovers that Connie has given a glass snowball of New York City to her new lover. It is the same snowball that Edward once gave Connie as a special pledge of his love and faithfulness within their 11-year-old marriage.
Diane Lane is nothing less than great in her layered performance as the perfect suburban wife and mother who takes incredible risks to all that she has held as crucial in her life. I have never noticed Lane as a stand-out star before. Well, now she is up there with the best.
Richard Gere acts with an agony and depth that seems to beyond his capabilities. Here he proves himself a fine actor.
Oliver Martinez is passionate as the somewhat twisted lover. For a book seller he must work out at the gym every day of the week.
Erik Per Sullivan shows himself to be an endearing child actor. He clearly acts as a key to the dilemma of how adultery deeply erodes family life.
The sexual content of Unfaithful is intense. Viewers should be well aware of what they are getting into. But Unfaithful is a powerful story for adults of the choices we are tempted to make and the ramifications of those choices on those we love.
A couple seated behind me at the viewing I saw, asked if I was sure what happened at the end of the film. My response was that I thought that the film switched from a very realistic film to a symbolic ending that clearly told you what would happen.
Unfaithful is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). There are intense sexual situations and violence. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gives Unfaithful the classification of A-IV Ė Adults with reservations.
(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and ecumenical relations officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews can also be found in the Cheney Free Press.)
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