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-of-the-film,
lacking the cinematic advantage of the sultry, pouting presence of Keira
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 horror of what he has done. He is brash,
profane, a drinker, nonetheless Guinness manages to convey the full agony of
the Major’s 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, assuming 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. One
might further speculate that to attempt the subject of atonement at all, a
novelist needs to be homo naturaliter religiosus.
McEwan, clever, fluent, postmodern to his fingertips, lacks the inner resources
for such a theme. Perhaps he should watch this minor classic – and recognise he
is a bantam-weight at best.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.