Thursday, December 9, 2010

ATONEMENT (2007): Perception and Reality

Most of the reviews of the movie, Atonement, have been positive.  Many other reviews begin typically as follows: “Though I’m in the minority here, I found Atonement to be melodramatic and dull.”  It’s remarkable that there can be so much uniformity for those in the “minority.”  Briony (as a young girl played by Saoirse Ronan) is a young and impressionable storyteller growing up on a large estate outside of London.  She is just beginning her teenage years when World War II begins.  She misinterprets passion between her beautiful sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightly), and a caretaker on the estate, Robbie (James McAvoy), as something more sinister.  When she witnesses a sexual assault of her friend, Lola (Juno Temple), she fingers Robbie as the culprit – based only on her own perception that it must have been him.  (We learn later that Paul Marshall [Benedict Cumberbatch], a friend of the family, carried out the assault; Paul at some point marries Lola to protect himself from ever being prosecuted for his crime.)  This being an England still beset by Victorian morality, Robbie’s indiscretions with Cecilia are interpreted in the most negative fashion and no one doubts that he is guilty of the sexual assault.  Robbie is hauled off by the magistrates and later given a choice of remaining in jail or going off to war.
We then jump ahead five years.  Briony (now played by Romola Garai) is an army nurse, and a very kind and capable one at that.  Cecelia, also a nurse, has abandoned her family but still corresponds with Robbie, who is now at the front.  Briony attempts to correspond with Cecelia and begs to have a chance to see her and ask forgiveness for all that she has done wrong.  Cecelia ignores all of Briony’s letters.  We perceive in the movie (though perceptions are misleading in this movie) that Briony does go to see Cecelia and discovers that Robbie is there with Cecilia on leave.  Robbie knows that he will never be pardoned of his crime, but he does wish that his name be cleared for the sake of his family and for the people who gave him employment.  Briony promises that she will provide a written statement confessing that she fabricated the story about Robbie’s involvement in the sexual assault.  Briony is never given the opportunity to make it up to Robbie and Cecelia, however.  We learn from an old and sickly Briony (played by Vanessa Redgrave), now a famous novelist, that Robbie dies at Dunkirk before the evacuation of British soldiers could ever take place.  Cecelia drowns in London in a fallout shelter during an enemy raid only a few months later.  Briony also reveals that Cecilia and Robbie never did meet after his arrest.  According to Briony, this was a fabrication created for her novel because she could not abide having the couple never meet again.  Briony ended the novel by having Robbie and Cecelia walk the beaches of Dover because she wanted to give it a happy ending.
Atonement, directed by Joe Wright and based upon the novel of Ian McEwan, is paced well for 123 minutes (much better paced than the novel), is stylish in appearance, is incredibly acted by Saorise Ronan as the young Briony and Romola Garai as the barely adult Briony, and comes close to conveying a tragic message.  It certainly will be considered significant among 2007 movies.  However, the movie viewpoint changes from perceptions of Briony and perceptions of other characters throughout the movie, and this trick is not always successful.  It dilutes the impact of the forced separation of two passionate characters that are in love with each other.  The replaying of scenes from different perspectives makes us appreciate how cleverly we are being manipulated by the filmmakers.  Also, we see Robbie walk across the beaches of Dunkirk and we are supposed to appreciate how many dollars were spent upon the production.  The acting of Vanessa Redgrave as the aging Briony who is now suffering from vascular dementia (meaning that she will never again be able to deal in the world of words) makes us admire the casting by the moviemakers in creating a complete Briony from youth to old age – all of which does little for me.  We want to care – or in any case be affected by the actions of the characters, but all of the cinematic and literary techniques is too much of a distraction.
Maybe McEwan as a novelist and Wright as a director were uncertain about their own abilities to provide a competent narrative in first person.  Frankly, their talent was too limited to weave a story together based in one part on the subjectivity of perception, another part on the crushing impact of prudishness upon the lives of passionate young people, and still another part about the need to atone for one’s past sins.  Another English writer like D.H. Lawrence may have been able to pull it off, but McEwan was no Lawrence.  Nevertheless, I give the moviemakers credit for making this more than a romance.  Briony comes across both as a nasty and morally smug young teenager to someone who does appreciate later as an adult the damage she has done to the lives of Robbie and Cecelia.  Keira Knightly, as the young flapper, is almost too perfect looking to be completely believable as such a vital young woman, yet the sultry expressions she gives to the camera convince the viewer that she would bring heartbreak to any young man.  McAvoy is extremely authentic in the first third of the movie, but he is almost too saintly in the middle third of the movie to be perceived as a person rather than a symbol.  But we get enough sampling of genuineness in the three characters to understand how what occurred was a true waste.  And the key character, always having it in her power to correct the situation and never actually doing anything about it until it is too late, compounded the tragedy.

January 8, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008

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