Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Atonement (2007)

Indubitably, there are spoilers, good chap.

Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan)
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave. 

Images from the 2008 Focus Features release (Canadian).

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Atonement is a magnificent movie. By no means perfect, but magnificent nevertheless. For me, it's fascination grows on a second (or third) viewing because my thoughts of what's on screen are influenced by having seen the entire film. Adapted from the novel by the same name, Atonement has the feeling of a book, with one thought bleeding into the next. There are moments where it achieves a kind of stream of consciousness, and if the narrative seems rocky, that's fitting, I think. The film serves as a line of thought, filled with regret and a longing for the innocence of childhood, as well as a question of what value fiction has as a means of atoning for past sins.

Atonement tells the story of Briony Tallis, who's misinterpretation and possible jealousy of the budding romance between her sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner (the Tallis family's gardener) results in Robbie being accused of rape. The two are torn apart, and kept that way by World War II. It's difficult to talk about the rest of the film without throwing spoilers out left and right, so you're better off just watching the movie.

Fleeting Innocence

The film begins in the countryside, and the lighting during this time is bright and clean:

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The scenes at the Tallis' countryside home are a haven of sorts, and the clean light brings to mind a feeling of innocence and purity. There is peace here, and one thing the film makes very clear is just how fleeting this is. These scenes have the look of Eden, yet there is dread that lurks just beneath the surface. This is not a place of sheer benevolence and childhood innocence, but a world grounded by reality and firmly planted between the two World Wars.

The opening scene is of Briony writing her first play. Through these opening shots, we are told a lot about her and I see the entire film as her brainchild (except the final scenes). It is through fiction that she finds a catharsis, as well as a means of atonement, which the title clearly suggests. The film's score, even, uses the sound of a typewriter to emphasize moments of confession. 

Briony is a child that needs attention, yet I don't view her as simplistic as others do. The synopsis on the dvd, for instance, says:

"[...] her jealousy drives her to tell a lie that will irrevocably change the course of all their lives forever [...]"

Yet the entire film (and again, the title) conveys her as a woman completely wracked with guilt and she seems bent on flagellating herself through her own fiction as a form of penance. The film is coloured through her eyes, and the tranquility of the opening scenes makes it seem like a distant memory. Therefore, I don't think we can label her as villainous because the film is her own biased (and self-loathing) account. Whether she wasn't at least a little jealous of Cecilia and had a crush on Robbie, there is little doubt. But I don't agree we can simplify her actions to jealousy alone.

It is important that we first see Briony at the age of 13, since this is an age bordering childhood and adolescence. It is also, I think, the time at which the height of our imaginations meets the height of our paranoia, and it is this that plants the seed that will rend the peacefulness of these early scenes. There is an element of voyeurism, as if Briony is only beginning to encounter maturity.

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The ambiguity at play here is in part what makes the film fascinating. To what extent is it Briony's "fault" and to what extent are her actions a product of her age? It is at this age that she is still young enough to "do the right thing," yet old enough to suspect Robbie as a pervert. The film conveys her as the "villain" because it is her narrative and because she is so guilt stricken. There is an element of truth to her suspicion, as well, because Robbie did indeed write a lurid note to Cecilia.

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Yet the film's point in all of this, I think, is that the difference between "right" and "wrong" is never so clear cut. There is an understanding that not every action we do is on purpose or intended to be seen and as such, this blurs the line of morality that seems to be so clear during childhood. Briony is still young enough to believe that there are "right" things to do in one box, and "wrong" things in another and that there's no mixing the two. She is at the age where ambiguity is a word learned later in life.

There are moments of perversion hidden behind seeming innocence. Perhaps the best scene of this is when Paul Marshall and Lola (the Tallis sisters' cousin) are conversing in the playroom with the twins. Paul, who is actually the one who rapes (then marries) Lola, is the perfect example of the sinister lurking beneath a veneer of innocence. This is quite apparent, since he owns a chocolate factory, and attempts to seduce Lola with chocolates. 

War, too, is an arena for lost innocence, as in one of the best shots in the film:

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During this scene, there is a moment in which the close up lighting on Robbie's face changes for an instant. At first drained and austere, the light suddenly warms for a moment (reminiscent of those earlier scenes) and then fades. It's brief, but it's a magnificent use of light. It is after this shot that we segue into Robbie's own memories. We see him with Briony, who jumps in a river so that she will save him and we see a kind of frustrated chivalry in him.

The scenes at the beaches of Dunkirk, in terms of pacing, almost seem sloppy and I wonder if that's fitting. It is during these scenes that Briony, in writing a fictional account, attempts to recreate Robbie's experiences through historical record. At this point, she can only guess at his actions and thoughts, so perhaps that is why the narrative seems choppy. 

Through these scenes, we see a yearning for the safety of childhood, as when Robbie imagines his mother with him:

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As in introduction to Dunkirk, there is an impressive long take showing the beaches and the community of soldiers that has sprung up there waiting to be evacuated. This shot serves as a time capsule that fixes the historical evacuation of Dunkirk onto film. Here, we see many things, from men shooting their horses, to soldiers singing, to riding merry-go-rounds, and in the distance, a great ferris wheel amidst the smoke and rubble.

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The whole scene is a juxtaposition of innocence and brutality. The amusement park rides in particular, bring to mind the desire to regain the innocence of our childhood. The screenshot itself looks straight out of a historical textbook, which would make sense, since this is partly the material that Briony is working from to recreate Robbie's experiences.

Postcard Perfect

In addition to the history books and firsthand accounts, Briony's other source for Atonement (the novel in the film, not the film) was probably Robbie and Cecilia's letters.

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These moments gain a kind of stream of consciousness, again because it is Briony through which these scenes are created. In many ways, it is her idealization of how things looked and how they went. She has essentially romanticized the letters into her own vision of what they looked like rather than adhere to reality. There are shots that are achingly beautiful, like when Robbie tells Cecilia he will come back for her.

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These shots look less like photographs and more like paintings. In some ways, this is akin to Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, which also created shots that looked more like 18th century oil paintings than actual cinematographs. What the Kubrick film says, for me, is similar in many ways to Atonement. That is, these are events that have passed and they are frozen in time by the records that have been kept of them. Where these films differ is in the handling of these records. Atonement's emphasis is on fictionalizing them, and the value that it has. 

What the postcards do for Robbie and Cecilia is provide a reprieve from immediate reality, best symbolized by their aspirations to live in a cabin by the sea. 

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The shot of Robbie lighting a match to see the postcard is indeed magnificent, easily one of the best shots in the film and emblematic of the fleeting happiness these postcards bring. The match, like the happiness derived from living in a postcard, fades. 

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Atonement and Confession through Fiction.

Yet the value of those moments of happiness match the kind of fictional happiness Briony is attempting to bring Cecilia and Robbie. I've said before that I tend to be adverse to happy endings, but that does not mean that happy endings are taboo. Of course they're welcome when done properly and not given to the audience like how one spoon feeds a baby. Likewise, I generally don't like determinedly bleak endings with no affirmation. Somewhere in the middle, with an ending that gives us hope while grounding us to reality, is ideal for me. It's not naive, but it's not a downer. Atonement manages to do this effectively, and moreover, it is aware of it. 

Just as she romanticized images from the letters, Briony also imagined a whole life for Robbie and Cecilia. It is, for her, a gift to them and a means of repentance. The idea of it, for me, is of course well intentioned, but I wonder just how one handles such subject matter. As Briony says, she started out by telling the whole truth as a way of doing justice for Robbie and Cecilia. Yet, and this is the kicker, she found the reality of it too cold, and in an act of pity (since she is essentially the deity in her fictional (and past) world), gave Robbie and Cecilia the happy ending they deserved. Whether this is "right" or not, I have no way of saying, and I don't even think Briony knows for sure. Her decision, I would say, is understandable given her position.

Briony hovers just out of frame in practically every scene and you can feel her presence. After all, it is her story. The opening scenes have the clarity of a memory, and like any nostalgia, they are bathed in an effervescent glow. The war scenes are darker and more stark, in part because she is writing as a secondary observer from firsthand accounts, letters, books, and her own imagination. The most interesting scenes, for me, are those where she attempts to imagine what Robbie and Cecilia were feeling. As mentioned before, there is the scene where Robbie imagines his mother tending to his wounds. 

One that sticks out in my mind is where we see Robbie's arrest and all events prior to that in reverse. 

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In this shot, we see that this is a different point of view of what Briony saw from her window. Here, there is an surrealism to it, since there is a fog that wasn't there before. This moment, that occurs in Robbie's head, clearly has some of Briony's own memory in it. She has transplanted herself into Robbie's mind to see just what she has done. The rewinded shot, of course, comes from her own regrets and desire to undo the damage. 

Fiction serves as a catharsis and a penance. In Atonement, Briony seems to be cast in a negative light because she is self-flagellatory and critical of her actions. In her novel (seen as the film itself), she drags herself through the mud out of guilt. There is a scene where she is washing her hands and she is obviously Lady Macbeth. It is her last book because it is her dying confession and she needed to release it. The scene where she meets Cecilia and Robbie in their flat is fictionalized, and it is this scene where she begs for forgiveness, and allows Cecilia and Robbie to have their vengeance on her.

There are shots at each stage of her life that clearly show her in a confessional:

First, a false confession.

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Then a moment of contemplation.

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And finally, a truthful confession.

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It's interesting that in this series of shots, we see the camera get closer and closer to her face, each time getting closer to the truth, and more importantly, her atonement.

Some attention must be given to the score, which one the Oscar for 2007. What the music in the film does for me is evoke a sense of urgency, as if Briony is hurrying to tell the truth, racing against her own clock. The typewriter sounds, in particular, emphasize this, and they seem to come up during moments where Briony would be most frustrated with herself in hindsight. It's as if she is typing the novel of Atonement out of self-hatred. 

Atonement has its share of flaws, and maybe a few scenes that I can't decide on their importance, beyond what is apparent. Still, it addresses many things that I find fascinating in films: The division between reality and fiction and walking that line. Imagination and its constructive and destructive powers. The desire for penance. And maybe above all, a yearning for childhood innocence and the loss thereof. 

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1 comment:

  1. I watched this film recently and was Googling for pictures, when I came across this. The comparison of the three confessional pictures is brilliant -I'd never thought about it like that before! I wrote an essay at uni about Atonement and war trauma (though, of course, the war is little more than a plot device, barely relevant) and loved doing it. Brilliant book, so thought-provoking, and brilliant piece.