April 27th, 2008
Before reading this review, you should know that I am the girl who cried at Titanic not because Leo died but because a voiceover said the word “absolution,” as in the survivors waited “for an absolution that would never come.” Great theological words like “absolution” push all my buttons, so I don’t even have to know what a movie called Atonement is about in order to know that I want to see it. (Why did I only see it just now on DVD? Believe me, I tried to see it in the theater several times, but every attempt failed for one reason or another.)
I did know, from reading reviews, that Atonement was more than likely to point to the impossibility of atoning for one’s sins, or at least to point to a very shabby possibility for doing so. And that is the case. However, it’s a compelling portrait of the real pain people feel when they’re aware of their guilt but feel powerless to do anything about it. It also happens to be pretty brilliant in both narrative and cinematic technique, but unfortunately I can’t say a whole lot about that without giving away spoilers. Atonement is a movie where remaining unspoiled truly matters—not because of plot details, but because knowing certain things spoils the experience of doubt and second-guessing and productive confusion that you go through while watching the film (at least, if you haven’t read the novel, which I haven’t).
Here’s what I can say without spoiling the movie: it is indeed about sin and the attempt to redeem oneself. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), in pre-WWII England, claims to have seen something, and it results in the wrongful imprisonment of Robbie Turner (James McAvoy–hurrah!), a family servant who also happens to be in love with Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). The movie establishes in its very first scene that Briony is an aspiring writer, so we never quite know whether she believes what she claims to have seen, or whether she’s made it up, or something in between. She almost certainly doesn’t anticipate the consequences, however, which involve Robbie being sent off to prison and then, five years later, to the battlefields of France.
Five years later, Briony (now played by Romola Garai) is beginning to understand what she did, and how she has made miserable the lives of both Robbie and Cecilia. She’s also beginning to make her first attempts to atone for her action, by giving up her spot at Oxford to become a wartime nurse. She empties bedpans, mops floor, scrubs her own hands rather too vigorously (not a subtle image, but still a resonant one). After lights-out, she gets up to write on her typewriter—and we can already tell that she’s using fiction to try to make sense of what happened. We can also tell that it’s not entirely working.
The movie also follows Robbie through France to the beach at Dunkirk, where the English and French troops have retreated. A word of advice: if you don’t know about the retreat to Dunkirk, check it out on Wikipedia. It will save you needless confusion. I could tell the scene was supposed to be really important because it had that famous five-minute-long tracking shot that everybody was talking about before the Oscars. I got that it was somehow about the waste of war, but I sensed there was an emotional level I just wasn’t grasping. Wikipedia may not supply the full context for you, but I’m not sure the full context is possible unless you’re British.
(Also, I just have to mention here that I have not seen and will never see the whole tracking shot—I had to turn away when they started shooting horses. It really happened at Dunkirk, and it was tactically necessary to keep the Germans from using the horses—but I’m still not going to watch it, even though I know that the horses in the movie are circus horses trained to fall over.)
All in all, Atonement isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a fascinating one, one that you’ll be thinking about days afterward. Yes, it’s rather bleak about the possibility of overcoming one’s guilt . . . kind of like a movie about Martin Luther in his depressed-monk days. But, hey, that’s an accurate portrayal of where all of us are without the grace of God.
Here come the SPOILERS!!!!! I advise not reading further unless you’ve seen the movie.
I’ve been re-reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire recently, and in some ways the experience of watching Atonement reminded me of the first time I read Pale Fire: the moments of “wait, that’s not quite right,” followed by realizations of “oh . . .”, followed by replaying entire scenes in your head. It makes my postmodern-nerdy self very happy.
I remember reading reviews of Atonement complaining that some scenes were just too pretty and perfect. The scene where Robbie runs after the bus bearing Cecilia away? Yeah, a little romantic and overdone. The thing is, once you get to the end of the movie, you realize that’s intentional, that the scene is shot the way that Briony has re-imagined it. Everything is heightened in fictional retrospect. Then you start going back and realizing that the scenes you saw twice—once from Briony’s perspective and once from Robbie’s and Cecilia’s perspective—may be actually from Briony’s perspective both times (once from the perspective of what she remembers and once from the approximation of Robbie’s and Cecilia’s perspective that she’s achieved through fiction).
One of the most important scenes in the film is the one in which the eighteen-year-old Briony holds the hand of a dying French soldier. She comforts him and eases him into death, at first by giving her true answers to his questions (“What is your sister doing now?”, “Did she marry the man she was in love with?”), which are true in a sense, but not entirely, because he thinks she’s someone else. Yet when he says that his mother thinks they should get married and asks if she loves him, Briony says “oui.” It’s true in a sense, it’s false in a sense, but it heals—as opposed to her big Not-Quite-the-Truth moment.
Obviously, this foreshadows her final, late-in-life attempt to atone for the harm she did Robbie and Cecilia by creating a fictional happy ending for them. I really, really appreciate how the movie leaves it open to interpretation whether we’re supposed to celebrate the power of the imagination to atone for the past or to view it as a pretty poor substitute for true forgiveness. I’m intrigued by the former interpretation, but of course I lean more toward the latter.
Recently, in my other venue, I raised the question of whether it’s possible or beneficial to forgive fictional characters. I definitely believe that fiction can be an exercise in charity on the part of both reader and writer . . . but I don’t think that exercising charity is the same thing as earning forgiveness, because of course forgiveness can’t be earned. It can only be granted, ultimately by God. Briony never atones for the past, and I think the movie shows that she knows it. In some ways, her dementia might be a mercy, the only mercy available to her in a world seemingly without Christ.
Director Joe Wright says that his film is filled with religious iconography, though he also says he’s not quite sure what it’s doing there. Ian McEwan, who wrote the novel Atonement, is an agnostic. The hymn heard in the Dunkirk scene was selected by one of the producers: it’s the last two verses of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” (with the British tune “Repton”, thank goodness), and they’re perfect for the movie. I take them as a prayer, a prayer for all souls like Briony who seek atonement but don’t know where to find it:
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
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