It was getting to that fifth alcoholic beverage and realizing suddenly that you’re being affected to a far greater degree than you thought. That’s what watching Atonement was like for me. It’s the first film that I’ve been so very greatly affected by in a long while, and that’s even after seeing every plot twist in the trailer. A lot of that comes down to the great craftsmanship and vision that Christopher Hampton has brought to the screenplay and how director, Joe Wright, interpreted that screenplay. My dilemma is how I begin to tell in what way this affected me, with the story or the craftsmanship? In the end every aspect of this film has been so carefully intertwined that they are all inseparable, and for me to talk about any of it would be to give away the surprise that I felt during this film. So, I feel I should be cautious and remain vague in my initial review and I will double back later to write more.
The very basic story involves an imaginative young girl, Briony Tallis (like Tri-on-ee), who wishes to put on a play for the arrival of her Brother, only in the process she witnesses a series of moments between her sister, Cecilia Tallis (Kiera Knightley) and the grounds keeper’s son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) that from the perspective we’re allowed to see it from – Briony’s perspective – is startling, even frightening. And like the good writer that she is begins to fill in the blanks herself. But what’s truly going on between Cecilia and Robbie is a bit more complicated. The parallel events that unfold are so carefully constructed that what happens is without realizing it you’re truly brought into the psyches of these characters. Especially the psyche of the 13-year-old Briony. You really do understand the world as they do. But you would think that a 13-year-old, even as imaginative as this would know better. What is it that truly pushes her to believe what she believes. There’s a short scene later in the film that hints at this, dealing with an emotion that Briony probably doesn’t understand herself.
There’s a chilling and rather dark turn to all of this. Meaning that the worst possible thing you can’t imagine, happens. And everyone is sent spiraling in different directions only to end up living in the quagmire of War. Each for different reasons, reasons that hinge on their ideas of freedom, be it from physical imprisonment or emotional, funny that you would run to war for freedom. Could their be things that are worse? The War symbolizes each characters’ inner struggle. And then something strange happened, for me anyway. We witness the war at first through Robbie’s eyes, then Cecilia’s and finally through Briony’s – each having aged enough years for a different actress to be playing Briony. My worst fear was that it would become a War movie, but it never does – shots are never fired, in fact the atrocities that we witness are almost too abstract for us to be affected by them; a dream scape that we have no emotional attachment to. Even the characters seem to be absent from their surroundings, as if they’ve been painted into this cruel joke. We observe Robbie finally making it to a hold up for American soldiers on a beach wrapping around the Ocean. It’s littered with them, soldiers, running amok – it resembles Disneyland on meth. The decay is too beautiful perhaps. And as Robbie slowly sinks into the imaginary world inhabited by Briony as a 13-year-old, that one where imagination can be so strong that rational thought is lost, we witness Briony finally waking to the reality around her – several years too late.
There were no orchestrations telling me to do so, and in fact the scene itself began more cringe inducing than emotionally taxing – a quiet scene – one I’m still not certain actually happened in the reality of the film. I say this because there were lines spoken that didn’t make sense (and looking back on the film this could easily have been a fiction.) It was almost like I suddenly realized I was in the dream the characters had been living in, all of them. The dream that hope could be found in the mess surrounding them. Hope for forgiveness or love. In a world with war and those that would take advantage of the innocent it’s hard to imagine that hope. Briony feels that by helping the wounded she’s somehow atoning for what she has done. Perhaps atonement can never be found like this. There was no music, a silent moment and as I started to wake up to this fact, I lowered my brow into my hand and quietly cried. If I had been alone I would have wept. It’s a difficult thing to be woken up to reality. A reality that you want to believe in only because, well, it’s really not fair.
This is an emotion that’s been reserved for few moments. One was after watching E.T. as a child, when hope was there. The next was after the first half of the Mike Nichols directed Angels in America when I felt the weight of the world, the battle we all are waging, press down upon me. Both instances caught me completely off guard. This third instance in Atonement leads to the third act of the film. A third act we shouldn’t trust. In your watching it ask yourself does Briony finally atone for what she’s done or does she continue to live in that imaginary world, a world of her own creations in which whatever solution makes her feel better about herself she lives out?
But all of the things that I loved about the film almost drove me to hating it. It walked the thin line between allowing us to feel the film as if we were the characters and that terrible word – manipulation. And maybe it’s the fault of the book that it puts it’s characters into situations only for the sake of exploring the ideas presented. For me these ideas were worth exploring and the situations handled well enough that it was like watching a ballet rather than a car crash. Observe the dinner scene in which everyone around the table is holding desperately to a secret. You feel those claws inching in. Or perhaps how the score clicks away like someone is at their keyboard – deeper. Or when we finally witness the final outcome of everyone involved. If it feels like the film loses a little juice as it goes it’s only because the first half of the film is so well drawn out. Thankfully these moments are few. And if you feel the cloud of manipulation hovering near, just give it a few minutes and the filmmakers reasons will become apparent. It is the whole that works even if some of the parts are a trifle creaky.
Kiera Knightely and James McAvoy are more than just pretty faces. They carry the weight of pain like two veterans of their craft.