[16 March 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s said that confession is good for the soul. Of course, this assumes one has a conscience worth redeeming. It’s clear that not everyone would benefit from such acknowledgments or affirmations. To do so would reveal their own inner weakness and sense of corrupt complicity. Such an individual is Briony Tallis. For almost 80 years, she has hid the secret of her atrocious actions, of a decent man wrongly accused, a heartsick girl horribly hurt, and a love unable to fully flower. She’s finally decided to write about it - her last novel. She calls it Atonement, for that’s what it’s meant to do. But even in the act of contrition, she can’t allow the truth to dampen the forced fanciful mood.
You see, back before Hitler invaded Europe, the Tallis clan lived a life of privilege. While son Leon hobnobbed with his school chums in London, daughters Cecilia and Briony spent the summer heat in the country. While Briony, the youngest, entertains herself with writing and secret passions, Cecilia appears directionless - that is, until those moments when servant’s son Robbie Turner shows up. He’s been favored by the family, sent to school on their good graces (and money) and welcomed in their home as a quasi-equal. He adores Cecilia. She’s just realizing her own emotional and physical attachment. A scandalous note, the arrival of a young chocolate merchant, and a night of horrific sexual misunderstandings lands Robbie in jail, Cecilia devastated, and Briony defiant. War only deepens the already substantial wounds.
In the story of the Tallis family, McEwan (via Christopher Hampton’s masterful screenplay) gives us the standard British class struggle stained by accusations of rape and the rising tide of World War II. As usual within the genre, smallish events play out amidst one of the grandest of backdrops. There is an epic quality to Atonement, something director Wright strives for in his shot selection, compositions, and showboating cinematic flights of fancy. While a single continuous take of the beach at Dunkirk is meant, in the filmmaker’s words, to show the pointless loss in combat, it’s also there to argue for the situations unreality and the man’s lens skill. We would never get a chance to see such a panorama from our normal vantage point. Indeed, Wright appears obsessed with the big picture all throughout the film.
On the newly released DVD version of the film (containing deleted scenes, minor Making-ofs, and a wonderful audio commentary), the director explains that there is a lot of such motion picture sleight of hand present. He admits that many of the story’s key narrative moments - Briony’s confession to the police, her later trip to visit Cecilia - have enough pragmatic questions and logistical plot holes to trip up his tale. It’s not because of McEwan’s book. It’s just that audiences are so accustomed to such sordid situations in our proto-progressive life that we just don’t buy into things the way Brits of the late ‘30s do. Yet thanks to technique and other directorial skills, Wright believes he’s overcome such flaws.
For the most part, he’s correct. We don’t really mind that the factual situation cannot possibly place Robbie at the scene of the supposed crime. We also don’t question why the victim, teen Lola Quincey, would feel so easily shamed by what happens. She does come across as practically begging for such physical attention during the opening scenes. Robbie also is a rather inactive accused. He seems resigned to the fate of stable boy railroaded by the hoi polloi. There is bitterness later on, but it seems centered as much on his own inability to save himself more than actual anger at those who clearly wronged him.
And then there is Briony. Like the Bad Seed mixed with society mandated meanness, this horrible little villainess remains one of Atonement‘s strongest sticking points. When we first meet her, she appears spoiled and sullen. When Robbie gives her the fabled note, her manic instinct is to violate its privacy and read it. When she catches her sister in a physically passionate embrace, she turns even more dour and determined. Finally, when circumstances show up and offer her a chance to play judge and jury, she easily condemns, doing so without a lick of ethos, or remorse. It’s all friendly finger pointing and pleasantly destroyed lives. As she grows, none of this nastiness moderates. Instead, the older versions of Briony appear like victims, wondering why the rest of the world can’t forgive their otherwise unfathomable motives.
But she’s not the only one stumbling block in this otherwise efficient film. The last act denouement, the plot point moment of clarity that many completely involved in the story have been waiting for, arrives with a whimper, not a scream. With proper SPOILER ALERT warnings in place, we discover that Robbie died of an infection while waiting to leave Dunkirk, and Cecilia dies during the Blitz. It’s a depressing way to end their tale, something our narrator, Briony, admits. So she cleans things up, gives them the justice the audience believes they deserve and colors the tragedy with hints of daydream world accessorizing. During these scenes, Wright argues for the movie’s main perspective - that of a guilty party trying to pretty up their path toward damnation. But since we don’t like Briony to begin with, her attempt at redemption falls flat.
So do some of the director’s more ambitious accents. Water is a strong subtext in the film - from Cecilia’s fountain dive to save a cherished piece of porcelain to her last act fate in the London underground. It’s where Robbie believes Briony’s motives lie (he remembers a fake drowning that supposedly proves the young girl’s jealous crush) and the distance between himself and his love and salvation. Yet Wright is too obvious in his imagery. We get the point long before he’s finished making it. And then there are the oddball dream sequences and sections of camera manipulation. Robbie’s battlefield vision seems pointless, and a middle act trip into fantasy (he hallucinates his mother washing his feet) is just superfluous. While it might create tone or mood, it seems to drag us away from the main action.
Again, on a second viewing, one can clearly forgive these indulgences. Atonement becomes something different when given a second chance. Knowing what happens, we can watch how Wright sets it up, how he hints and prepares us for what’s to come without giving everything away. The acting also stands out more clearly, especially James McAvoy’s turn as Robbie and Keira Knightley’s work as Cecilia. The first time through, we are still getting a handle on these characters, trying to figure out their motivations and their position. Subsequent involvements provide the passion and the complexities that appeared to be missing. In some ways, such a statement sums up Atonement quite well. It’s a good movie given over to initial bouts of incompleteness.
Of course, Briony never does pay. Her confession is half hearted, her desire for a happy ending she could not personally provide a combination of selfishness and subterfuge. We never once get the impression that she cares about what she did to Robbie and Cecelia, and even in her weakened, enfeebled state, she comes across as defiant in her decision. It may seem like a brave move to champion such an irreproachable shrew, to give her the last word and the way it’s to be presented, but that’s how Atonement works. By finally confessing what she did, we are supposed to see Briony as human and humble. But unless you give this film a second (or third, or fourth…) go round, you may miss that message all together - if it’s there at all.