Rightwing Film Geek

A godless atonement

atonementjug.jpg

It can very frustrating to read a critic, one you generally admire, get why a movie (or something about a movie) is great, but see it as evidence for why it’s bad. Two critics I really like did it with ATONEMENT, the film whose Golden Globe win makes it an Oscar frontrunner, and one I’d be elated to see win.¹

I said when I saw ATONEMENT at Toronto, that I would later discuss the ending, which had me completely broken. It did it again when I saw it on the opening day of its commercial release last month. Back in September, I partially wanted to finish up ASAP at a Toronto Internet cafe at 3am, and I partially wanted to recommend the movie as heartily as I could without spoiling it for others, since I went in completely tabula-rasa myself and think that a key to why this film hasn’t left my memory in months.

You have been warned.

At the end of the second act, Briony is told what she has to do to atone for her lies that put Robbie in jail and then later on the front lines and that estranged Cecilia from their family. The film flashes forward 50 years, from Briony sitting alone on a train to Briony as a famous elderly novelist. And we learn the truth that turns the movie inside out — everything we’ve been watching is a novel written by Briony, who is now giving a TV interview on it.

atonement3shot.jpgThe reunion that Robbie and Cecilia had that we see, and the promise of the reversal and clearing of Robbie’s name that was promised in that novel’s third act — it didn’t occur in “real life” and couldn’t have because they were both killed in the war (Robbie at Dunkirk, Cecilia in the Blitz). The movie closes on what we assume is the close of Briony’s novel, of Robbie and Cecilia in a beachfront cottage with a view of the White Cliffs of Dover. (I wonder if Americans realize how archetypal that is to a Briton, particularly in a World War II context.) “I gave them in fiction the happy ending they couldn’t have in life. That’s my atonement. It was all I could do,” Briony says (more or less) of what will be her last novel as she will soon slip into irreversible dementia.

So this is the latest “twist” movie, though because ATONEMENT is not a crime or heist movie, I was completely, utterly unprepared for it. It’s a fairly common trick, in fact — the “unreliable narrator” — but it’s made effective by the fact that we don’t even really realize that the film actually HAS a narrator, much less that it’s a character within the story. But this is not an unfair trick, because, on reflection and second viewing, we see that some details of ATONEMENT’s style actually had set up the-film-to-that-point as discourse. It’s not just Briony is shown in the first act to be a precocious writer and in the second act to be writing a novel hinted to be about the first act. It’s also that the first things we see are a typewriter and typing (shades of another of my favorite recent movies, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, which also turns inside out upon the discovery of discourse). And the first things we hear are the familiar clackety-clack of a manual typewriter — a sound that never entirely leaves us because (it seems) scorer Dario Marianelli uses typewriter sounds on the score continuously. It made for a bracing score but, unbeknownest to the inattentive viewer, it also signifies that we are seeing something being typed, i.e., Briony’s novel. Continue reading

Advertisements

January 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 3 Comments