“Atonement”: She Gives Anton Chigurh a Run for the Money, A Critical Continuation

AtonementIf you wish to read my review of Atonement. Go here.

*Major Plot Spoilers Ahead; Read With Caution. The First Paragraph Gives Everything Away!*

In the movie Atonement the character Briony, a 13-year-old, with too much time on her hands makes a terrible decision by blaming the rape of one of her cousins on the grounds keeper Robbie, which separates Robbie and his love Cecilia for pretty much the rest of the film. On the surface it would appear that Briony’s imagination merely gets carried away. She witnesses things from a distance or after they’ve happened that could easily be misconstrued by a young child as terrible and frightening events. We are allowed to empathize with her by the way the story unfolds, first through her eyes, then as the events actually happened. Through her eyes we’re startled by Robbie’s voice as he barks at Cecilia by the fountain and she strips naked and jumps in, seemingly by his order. And then again when she walks in on them having sex. When Briony sees it it’s a terrifying moment, in reality it’s quite funny.

But it’s my belief that it’s not only her imagination at work.

In my review of Atonement I write:

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.

What is that emotion that I speak of? There are a few key scenes that hint to what it is that Briony is being affected by.

The first comes to Robbie at war as he’s wandering through a field. It’s one of those moments between two people that one doesn’t think much of until later, until something of much greater consequence has happened, until somewhere in the subconscious those two moments become cause and effect. The scene in question has Briony standing over a river asking Robbie if he would save her if she fell in the river. He says, of course. So, she throws herself in the river. And he rescues her. All very romantic in her mind, but he lets loose with a furious rage, telling her how stupid she was to put both of their lives in jeopardy over a game. The thanks that Briony gives is one of confused hurt, but she marches on regardless of the fact that she’s about to weep for being made a fool of.

The second scene is when Briony as a nurse is being questioned by her friend over a type writer late one night as to whether or not Briony’s ever been in love. Briony answers no, but she has had a crush on someone, and she tells her friend about the event that occurred at the river with Robbie.

Imagine a 13-year-old girl with an imagination and a crush on a handsome young man who’s at least 6 years older than she, who finds herself suddenly scolded for having romantic notions about the two of them. Then to find that the boy of her imagination has a sexual desire that is fixated on someone else. To me it sounds like jealousy. It’s jealousy that allows Briony’s imagination to carry through with her story. It’s jealousy that gets her to open up the letter he’s passed on to Cecilia. And finally to put all of the intended pieces together in the wrong way. What if that scene at the river hadn’t happened? Would she have misinterpreted it? Perhaps, but maybe not so boldly.

In the final scene between Briony, Cecilia and Robbie that obvious crush still exists. You can tell by the way Briony attempts not to look at Robbie. And her apology which is delivered with the same forced sincerity that her thanks was given by the river. It’s almost at odds with how she truly feels inside in those moments. If one were to imagine her letting loose and saying what she meant it might be that she passionately loves Robbie. But she can’t. Keep in mind that this scene comes from Briony’s mind, it’s a manifestation of how she still feels as an older woman. Even she doesn’t feel she deserves that love. So what she seeks out instead is a false sense of closure. One that leaves us loathing the character. But if one reconsiders the story as a love never fulfilled from her end, perhaps with a little more sympathy. So perhaps her Atonement isn’t in her apology she never gives, but in the fact that she’s lived the rest of her life alone and unloved, something that for a brief moment in the lives, that even though she ruined, lived between Robbie and Cecilia were able to have.

James McAvoy says something similar in his AOL moviefone Unscripted Interview about Briony, which can be watched here. A fun and enlightening interview. In which he talks about Briony’s need to stay the center of attention. Jealousy indeed .

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11 Responses to ““Atonement”: She Gives Anton Chigurh a Run for the Money, A Critical Continuation”

  1. Mark Says:

    It’s interesting to read the reaction to this film of someone who apparently hasn’t read the book on which it is based. (If I’m wrong about that, some of what follows might be undermined, but I’ll take the chance. The failure to mention author Ian McEwan’s name even once in two lengthy posts seems like one clue.)

    Don’t get me wrong: seeing the film without reading the book is certainly a valid choice; I do it all the time. Presumably, a film ought to be able to stand on its own. But in a case like this, especially where Hampton has been quoted (my recollection, sorry no time to find and link) that a major goal of his later rewrites was to hew closely to the book, it’s notable how different the two experiences are.

    The book, of course, has far more time and far more narrative options, and the sheer weight of psychological detail it presents is as gripping and impressive as anything I’ve read in 10 or 20 years. The motivations of these people — even the 13-year-old — are truly complex, but they are brought together to make even appalling acts understandable. Ultimately, the crush/jealousy thing is, I believe, a red herring, and by the time the 18-year-old Briony encounters Cecilia and Robbie again (at least as McEwan relates the elder Briony’s final version of the story), it seems like it’s a non-factor. She averts her eyes from their kisses not because of a crush that’s still there, but out of a complex of embarrassment, guilt, grief, narrative license perhaps, and more.

    The jealousy angle is reductive. This is much more a story about the nature of certainty, about how much you can trust your own eyes and (more to the point) your own interpretations, and the moral consequences of doing so. The story (much more so the book than the film) is about people looking at things and getting them wrong. Not just Briony: Cecilia gets Robbie wrong originally (and vice versa), Lola gets Marshall wrong, the dying Frenchman gets Briony wrong, a group of soldiers at Dunkirk (in a key scene that was curiously omitted in the film) get it wrong about an RAF man they blame for the devastation, Robbie has a variety of misapprehensions and hallucinations on the road to Dunkirk, and so on. McEwan has a particular technique of describing people’s first impressions and how they revise them: most notably, when Briony finds Lola and the rapist, she actually first sees the forms as a bush; she realizes that’s wrong and develops a different observation, and then another. Somewhere along the way, though, she decides she doesn’t need to revise any more, and reaches certainty — or, at least, sufficient certainty for her. What makes her stop the process? That’s where the fascination lies. Jealousy … maybe, but it seems a lot more complicated than that.

    The fact that the film doesn’t present this anywhere near as well as the book is understandable. I approached the film with great anticipation, but thinking in the back of my mind that the book was probably unfilmable, at least in a 2-hour theatrical release. (We might see a great adaptation of it in 20 or 30 years on some descendant of Masterpiece Theater.) I came away confirmed in this disappointment, but wondering if the depth of the book had somehow spoiled the film for me. So your reactions are quite interesting.

    Ultimately, though, I’ve come to see that my biggest disappointment in the film adaptation was its failure to realize, or at least to acknowledge in any way I could detect, its own deep irony. In a tale about the dangers of trusting your own eyes, to choose a medium and a narrative style that leaves us all as Briony-like visual observers of the surface of the story is either a boldly insightful or a clueless act. Perhaps if the filmmakers had kept true to their stated goals and rendered the final act (with the elderly Briony) in a way that stayed truer to the book, rather than making their greatest deviation, they might have been able to make it plain that insight was at work. As it is, though, the film fails for me because it allows viewers to come away, after only brief observation, with a sense of certainty about the “obvious” motives of the characters — much as 13-year-old Briony did.

  2. Phillip Says:


    I have the book now sitting to the side of my desk, ready to read.

    I hate comparing books with their filmic counterparts. It’s the reason why most times I don’t mention the originating author unless I’ve done research on the side and am talking about the adaptation process as it seems you’ve done here. (Creative Screenwriting is a great place to dig into things like this.) I include any adaptations: comic books, video games, etc. I think the only one to truly upset me in recent years that I find myself comparing to the original version was the adaptation of “Resident Evil” only because I was so upset that the movies didn’t capture the fear of the video games in any way, shape or form.

    As for the rest of your nicely written response. I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve written. The elements you describe are what create the most intense and articulate segments of the movie. It’s what I was referring to in my initial review when I said the film came close to being manipulative (if it hadn’t been so well done.)

    I think there’s a clear sense about the character’s motivations in the movie. It does become a little more complicated in the character of Briony, but I managed to follow it all pretty well. I do agree with the distancing feeling the film had, especially during all of the war time scenes. People talk to death about the “long shot” at the center of the film, but I was so emotionally detached from it, I didn’t care that the camera technique was amazing, because it’s all that I saw…the technique.

    The tongue in cheek title aside (come on, Briony is hardly worse than Anton.) The point I was trying to make, I suppose, by pointing out the factor of jealousy is that there is a beginning point to everything. A seed was planted that allowed Briony to misinterpret things that happened.

    In a film as intelligently constructed as this I can’t imagine they would spend time talking about Briony’s crush and actually show this flashback if it was only a red herring. I think it speaks to their relationship. Briony interpreted Robbie’s friendship as romantic (building up quite a little dream in her head) and Robbie destroyed that, with anger. I can’t imagine the sore thoughts that lingered afterwards in Briony’s mind. If he had allowed that dream to linger in her imagination I don’t think Briony would have taken as much of a notice to the events that occurred by the fountain and then wouldn’t have opened the letter, etc…because her perception of Robbie would have been one of romance.

    Now, the jealousy bit, might be a stretch. But I think it lingers. It’s not a conscious piece of the puzzle. The reason why I say this, is because, you never get a sense during any of this that Briony is truly afraid of Robbie or that she detests him in any way. And there is that moment in which Briony looks away while they kiss later in the movie. Let me explain further.

    What you have here is an aging woman, one who’s been told she’s going to die, writing this scene. I think she is jealous of what Robbie and Cecilia had. She’s been alone her entire life. Robbie is the only crush she admits to ever having. To imagine them happy, I think would make the Cecilia of any age, jealous. Jealousy doesn’t necessarily mean anger or hatefulness. It can mean embarrassment, sadness or grief. Nurse Briony in this scene isn’t nurse Briony at all, but aged Briony, perhaps understanding that her emotions for Robbie remained strong over the years. Realizing that maybe being hurt by Robbie next to the river made her jealous, maybe not directed at Cecilia, but jealousy can manifest itself strangely.

    Maybe this is only my perception of how things could have happened.

    Regardless their are puzzle pieces shown in the film that toy with the audiences perceptions as well as the characters. It’s a smart choice by the filmmakers that if jealousy in any way was related they didn’t make it clear.

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