Robert Fisk: Film-makers must atone for their sins

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Cultural censorship is like a disease. It moves among us unseen. Let me show you how it works. Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth gave Cate Blanchett a unique moment to recreate the Virgin Queen in his 1998 film. But the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, is a clunker because – in the one vital scene where Elizabeth demonstrates to her soldiers that she is among them as their fighting sovereign – when she addresses her troops at Tilbury before the expected arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588, her most famous statement, learned by every schoolboy in Britain, has been ruthlessly expunged.

My dad used to quote this to me and even took me to Tilbury to show me the fortress – still standing today – in which Elizabeth told her soldiers: "I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king."

Alas, this was too much for Mr Kapur. In the age of feminism, such statements are forbidden, unacceptable, inappropriate, provocative. How else can one account for the scene in which Ms Blanchett, prancing around on a silly white horse (in front of what looks more like a platoon than an army) simply does not utter these famous, historic words with which Elizabeth rallied her men.

Millions of cinemagoers must have been waiting for that line – but it was taken from them. Elizabeth had to be a feminist queen, albeit a virgin, and had to represent today's womanhood in which women are not "weak and feeble" – rather than the uniquely-placed lady who led her kingdom in an age of male domination. By saying that her heart was that of a man, she was not, of course, submitting herself to "maledom"; in Tudor England, Elizabeth was saying that she was the equal of a man.

But movies are capable of darker forms of manipulation. In the award-winning 1996 film The English Patient, for example, the spy David Caravaggio has his thumbs cut off by fascist troops. But a woman is ordered to perform this grisly task and a veiled Muslim indeed steps forward with a knife as Caravaggio's tormentor explains that "Muslims" understand this sort of thing.

I could not comprehend, when I watched this gruesome, bloody scene, why Islam should have been brought into the film – whose cultural background is largely that of Renaissance Italy. Why did the screenplay, written by the director Anthony Minghella, wish to associate Muslims with brutality? I eagerly bought Michael Ondaatje's novel, upon which the film is based, only to find the following account of the amputation, in the words of Caravaggio: "They found a woman to do it. They thought it was more trenchant. They brought in one of their nurses. She was an innocent, knew nothing about me, my name or nationality." As I suspected, there was no reference to a "Muslim". Indeed, the profoundly racist scene in the movie had no foundation whatever in Ondaatje's text. So why was it there?

A relief, then, in the past few days, to have watched Joe Wright's devastating film Atonement, a drama of betrayal and dishonesty and love among the upper classes in 1930s England, which moves from being almost low-budget domestic art house cinema into the epic of Dunkirk.

The plot – to outline it for those who have not seen the film – is deeply prosaic. Briony falsely accuses her older sister Cecilia's lover, Robbie, of raping her cousin Lola after an insufferably high dinner at the family manor house. Robbie is arrested – Cecilia believes in his innocence – and is inevitably convicted of rape and imprisoned. But when war is declared in 1939, he is given the opportunity of freedom if he enlists.

As the second half of this dark film opens, he is concealing a chest wound from his two corporals as – lost amid the British Expeditionary Force's retreat to the Channel ports in 1940 – he leads them towards the northern French coast. There is a weird familiarity to these scenes – in the 1957 movie Dunkirk, John Mills leads an equally lost platoon towards salvation – but when Robbie follows a canal, he tells his men he can "smell the sea". As he climbs a sand dune, we suddenly see before him 20,000 – perhaps 30,000 – British soldiers on the beaches.

So sudden, so unexpected is this sudden epic scene that in the cinema I muttered "Fuck me!" under my breath and, in a glorious marriage of audience and film, one of Robbie's corporals, confronted by the same scene, cries out, just after I did: "Fuck me!"

The Dunkirk sequence lasts only just over five minutes but it penetrates the brain. French officers shoot their horses on the beach, drunken British soldiers lie in the gutters, cursing. No censorship here.

But Robbie's black corporal walks further. In Ian McEwan's book, there is a mere reference to "the feeble sound of a hymn being sung in unison, then fading." But Joe Wright's film takes the corporal to a shattered seaside bandstand where British troops – wounded, their uniforms bloodied – are singing that wonderful hymn "For All The Saints, Who From Their Labours Rest." It is magnetic, a symbol of courage in war that gives this film a dignity it would otherwise not possess.

Robbie, we are led to believe, makes it back to England in one of the "little ships" to be reunited with Cecilia. Briony turns up at their south London slum to apologise, offering to go to court to admit her lie. Lola's present-day husband, it transpires, was the rapist. Only at the very end does the elderly and dying Briony (now played by Vanessa Redgrave) admit that her novel of the Robbie-Cecilia reunion does not represent the truth. She wished them to be together but, in truth, Robbie died of septicemia at Bray Dunes, Dunkirk, on 1 June 1940 and Cecilia was killed in the bombing of Balham Tube station four months later.

"The age of clear answers was over," the elderly Briony says of herself in the book. "So was the age of characters and plots ... Plots were too like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn ... It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time..." And it is this concept that informs the film of Atonement, as honest an attempt as the movie world has yet reached in portraying dishonesty, war and love – with neither censorship nor racist contrivance.

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