Atonement: First World Tragedy

Atonement is this year’s Notes on a Scandal, in both its elegant structure and its insistence that, yes, British people DO behave badly once in awhile. Who knew?

atonmentposter.jpgI’m upset because it’s probably not feasible to watch Atonement every day.

Seeing it in theaters, certainly, is impractical after three or four times. I mean, I have to eat, after all. Then I guess I could buy it on DVD, but even then I could probably only watch it ten or eleven times before those others who live in my house start complaining. Plus, my Netflix queue would languish, and I’d fall way, way behind in my goal of seeing every movie ever.*

My recourse, therefore, is to try and remember as much as possible of Joe Wright‘s painstakingly crafted film. It’s not difficult to do. The lush world of British aristocrats of the Thirties is the setting of the first third of the film, and within its sunlit idleness, tension sparks. There’s Briony Tallis (Saiorse Ronan), the thirteen-year-old little sister who struggles to be taken seriously, and it is partly because we remember the painful confusions of pre-adolescence that we are able to understand, if not sympathize with, with the actions that end up cementing three fates. You see, her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley in the most amazing dress of her career) is awkwardly in love with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy). Briony happens to witness some poorly-planned moments during their brief romance, misinterprets their meaning, and, presto! All of a sudden it’s five years later, Robbie’s struggling to stay alive in World War II, Cecilia is alone and penniless, and Briony has a guilty conscience.

atonment.jpgGet over yourselves, right? I mean, Robbie’s case is a sad one, but it is a war, after all. Surely there would be a good chance he’d have ended up fighting anyway, and even if he hadn’t, what makes his own story any more tragic than any other soldier stripped from his family, homeland, wife, and mother? Robbie himself reminds us everything between him and Cecilia boils down to just a few illicit moments in a library. When the entire world is being ripped apart by a war, is this really something to cry about?

But suddenly you realize that Wright isn’t trying to aggrandize the plight of his characters. He represents the gruesomeness of World War II as vividly as he does the peaceful idylls of the Tallis estate. In a magnificent sweeping shot that seems to last for hours, Robbie is shown as just a tiny part of a horrific bloody mess, and Cecilia is just one among hundreds of nurses trying to eke a living while helping the cause in London. It’s Briony that this film is about — how even in the midst of such chaos, human nature can be overwhelmed by guilt. And is it guilt that makes Briony so self-absorbed or is it self-absorption that makes her so guilty? For the film calls her reliability both as a witness and as a narrator into question. Briony didn’t commit the crime for which Robbie was accused, she didn’t withhold evidence that would prove his innocence as some characters did, she didn’t write the incriminating letter, she didn’t start the war or force him into enlisting, yet her sister and her sister’s faithful lover spent the rest of their lives despising her and suffering because of her actions. Or did they? Isn’t it possible that the two forgot about each other in the face of real tragedy and that Atonement is just another of Briony’s tales?

I’ve seen a number of films lately, but it’s still Atonement that I keep going back to, asking these questions and marveling at the film for filmmaking’s sake. It’s this year’s Notes on a Scandal, in both its elegant structure and its insistence that, yes, British people DO behave badly once in awhile. Who knew?

*Don’t try and test this goal by gifting me The Santa Clause 2. Tim Allen is so retired it’s like he barely even existed in the first place.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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