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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Atonement (review)

Just a Movie

Yes, it’s a romance, like all the ads are saying: a rapturous one, a glorious one, the best since The English Patient or Gone with the Wind or whatever classic the TV commercials are likening Atonement to in tones of hushed, awed respect. It’s true that there’s desperate urgency and an illicit thrill in the cross-class attraction between wealthy Cecilia Tallis and her family’s groundskeeper, Robbie Turner, during the last hurrah of Britain’s aristocracy in the 1930s, before the war. It’s true that Keira Knightley and James McAvoy share a palpable screen chemistry, that you believe with the same certainty with which you recognize it in yourself when romantic lightning strikes that they ache for each other, and that when they come together It. Is. Electric. And sexy. And spellbinding. And presented to us by director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) with such, ahem, piercing, stabbing need that it is way more provocative than anything far more explicit could have been.
And it’s true, too, that Knightley (Silk, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) is exquisite shouldering the kind of old Hollywood glamour that we still long for in romantic heroines, and that McAvoy (Becoming Jane, The Last King of Scotland) positively simmers with the kind of emotion — contained, held in, but always on the edge of bursting free — that old Hollywood trained us to love in romantic heroes. My god, there’s one scene with Cecilia and Robbie in which a third party is present, a third party who has done these lovers wrong, and the only way McAvoy’s Robbie can restrain himself from throttling this person who’s been so presumptuous as to intrude on their romantic solitude when this person is the last one who would be welcome here is by keeping his gaze resolutely on Knightley’s Cecilia, who without words, by sheer force of her will and her love for him, keeps him centered and calm. It’s an amazing, amazing scene, and more satiated with the devotion and sympathy and empathy of romance than any other dozen movies that purport to be about sexual love.

But you can call Atonement a romance only if you take it out of the larger context in which this relationship we see onscreen exists. It serves a much larger purpose, both within the confines of the story onscreen and outside it: Atonement in that larger context is about the power of fiction, the honesty of fiction, and — ironically — the dishonesty of fiction. It’s reconciling the duality of storytelling, how we knowing lie to ourselves when it serves purposes that we need to have served. By the time Atonement ends, we have been reminded that it’s all fiction, just a movie, and hence phony, by one interpretation, and yet we’re accepting on multiple levels of the sincerity of it anyway, because it is placating, and reassuring, and needed. We need stories: that’s what Atonement tells us, and reassures us that that’s okay.

And yet…

There’s a third party who turns Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship into a strange triangle: Cecilia’s little sister, Briony, 13 years old as Cecilia and Robbie suddenly discover that they’re in love. Oh, Briony! She is, as a fictional creation, such an superb example of the swollen hubris with which young girls (and maybe boys, too) believe they understand the ways of the world that it’s astonishing to think that she was created by a male novelist, Ian McEwan, from whose book this was adapted by Christopher Hampton. And Saoirse Ronan as the pubescent Briony turns in one of the most astonishing performances by a young actress I’ve ever seen. Her Briony is full of her own superiority, and yet it’s not an arrogance for which you can completely condemn her: she’s young enough not to understand what she’s doing when she misinterprets what is happening between her sister and Robbie and does what she can to quash it.

Atonement is not about Cecilia and Robbie: their love is here to set the stage for Briony’s story, to shape what Briony becomes as she grows — she is played at age 18 by Romola Garai (As You Like It, Rory O’Shea Was Here), who deserves to be a huge star, and the luminous Vanessa Redgrave (Evening, Venus) as an elderly, dying Briony, and at every step, she is profoundly whittled into fragile reality by the long-term affects of her adolescent arrogance. What she did as a 13-year-old haunts her, and what she is at the end of her life is about the diminished woman who is still learning how to come to terms with what she did.

And yet… what Briony does to come to terms with it is supremely arrogant in itself, and perhaps not something she should be proud of at all. It is false and egotistical and can in no way atone for her actions. Which leaves us neither here nor there: we can no more forgive her than we can dismiss how she has tried, in the limited ways available to her, to make things right. Which left me with my head about to explode from the meta appreciation of the power of movies that Atonement explores, and my heart about to explode with the knowledge that however patently just-a-movie Cecilia and Robbie’s love was in the end, I just wanted them to be happy together.

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MPAA: rated R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • JT

    It’s an amazing, amazing scene, and more satiated with the devotion and sympathy and empathy of romance than any other dozen movies that purport to be about sexual love.

    A powerful scene, no doubt. One that is completely undercut by the ending. In fact, the ending renders almost everything that came before it meaningless. All the interest and emotion that you have vested in these characters is ripped away from you and it left me feeling furious and cheated. It’s on my list of the worst movies of the year.

  • Jennifer

    Unfortunately I feel the same way as JT. I enjoyed reading your review, and I can see why you enjoyed the movie. I just feel like if I’m going to watch that much misery happen to characters I really care about, I want something more than a dry philosophical analysis of the power of fiction to take away from it. If it had continued forward in that world, with Celia and Robert having their wonderful moments, and Briony able to make enough genunine atonement so that she wasn’t tortured all her life by her guilt, I could have really loved this movie.

  • Kate

    Thank you for reviewing what was truly the best film of last year. Heartbreaking story, and beautifully rendered. Wright’s decision to show certain scenes twice (the fountain scene, the library scene) was especially brilliant: we see them through Briony’s eyes, and then what really happened. The result is that we despise Briony for the blatant lie she is telling (we KNOW she has got it all wrong), but at the same time, we understand WHY she is doing it, what is motivating her. Another subtle touch I liked was the ever-present clicking sound of the typewriter in the movie’s score, calling attention to the fiction of it all (fiction in the sense of lying, and – as we later find out – the fiction of the movie’s plot itself).

    Acting was superb all around, particularly Saoirse Roman and James McAvoy. The expressiveness of James McAvoy’s eyes alone should win him the Oscar.

    I think you’re completely correct about Briony’s overwhelming arrogance. When the elderly Briony describes her novel’s ending as “a final act of *kindness*”, it only drove that point home. All along and in the end, she really does not deserve redemption, but condemnation. Sometimes, forgiveness is not enough. A haunting idea, one of many in this brilliant film.

  • MaryAnn

    I want something more than a dry philosophical analysis of the power of fiction to take away from it.

    I didn’t find it dry and philosophical at all, but powerful and immediate.

    Plus, the movie isn’t really about Cecilia and Robbie: it’s about Briony. We don’t realize that at first, which is part of why the film is so powerful.

  • MBI

    I’m not surprised to see people hating on the final plot twist. This has looked to me like this year’s “The English Patient,” and people would hate it when they find out that it’s something substantially different.

    I hate “The English Patient,” and I’ve been dreading seeing this one. I’m not sure what I feel about that final plot twist, it’s… well, not a problem exactly, but it makes the film very sticky, and it annoys the piss out of me that people are hating on the one thing that makes this film worth chewing on.

    The whole thing is an elaborate fakeout, not just the one scene that didn’t happen but the ones that did. The entire movie is a trick, looking and feeling like a perfectly predictable costume-drama Merchant-Ivory-style shitfest (although it was never going to be as bad as “The English Patient”), then throwing that curveball. I’m not ready to give this film any kind of verdict yet, I do still have some problems with it. Were I making this movie, the final shot would have been far more sarcastic, and that scene with the tastefully arranged dead schoolchildren is pretty bad. I don’t think Cecilia and Robbie is one of the great film romances of all time. Still, this is not a film that can be entirely written off as middlebrow Oscar-bait, which is what most of the film’s detractors have pegged it as. The romance I’m reminded of is actually the one between Raymond Shaw and Jocelyn in the original “The Manchurian Candidate”; it looks cheesy and cliched until that cheesy romance-novel stuff is violently and irrevocably ripped away.

  • MaryAnn

    The entire movie is a trick

    Perhaps, but it’s a trick with a point, which is, in part:

    I don’t think Cecilia and Robbie is one of the great film romances of all time.

    Ah, but it *is*… and then it smacks you with the patent falseness of such fantasy. Life is not like the movies (or like novels), much as we would like to wish it were.

  • Miguel

    Finally, someone who understands that beyond the romance, there is a story about narrative and about guilt, that this film belongs to Briony. MaryAnn, have you read the book? I think you would enjoy the way that Briony’s state of mind is further developed.

  • I agree that Briony was the film’s center, which was why I was so disappointed with its long vacations away from her character. Which is ultimately what I thought ruined the movie.

  • MBI

    Ah, but the power of the twist, and the cruelty of it, depends on the audience’s deep investment with Robbie and Cecilia. I’m still not completely sold on it, but I don’t think I would have directed the film any farther away from them.

  • I generally enjoyed the book, but found myself getting kind of bored during the slog across France.

    Until we get to the Dunkirk scenes. Normally, I find any discussion of war pretty boring, but I found those scenes mesmerizing in the book and it sucked me back in. I didn’t hate the ending; in all honesty, I didn’t remember the ending. All I remembered was Briorny’s lies as a child and Robbie’s arrival at Dunkirk.

    The movie makes some fascinating plays on narrative construction, even to the point of playing with sounds. I loved the way that sounds, particularly the typewriter click, wove into the music. It was a great choice.

    Both Knightly and MacAvoy are growing as fine performers. Knightly plays a very brittle character, and MacAvoy plays the ultimate pragmatist.

    I have mixed feelings about “the cheat” at the end. It was an interesting conceit, because that throws the into doubt anything “real” that happened in the story. Perhaps the whole thing was a fiction. The only thing I really disliked was the little beach scene, which struck me way too much like the very last moment of Thelma and Louise.

  • MaryAnn

    Ah, but the power of the twist, and the cruelty of it, depends on the audience’s deep investment with Robbie and Cecilia.

    Yes, absolutely. That’s why the “long vacations away from” Briony are essential. We have to not understand until the end that this is her story, not theirs.

  • MaryAnn

    Oh, and no, I have not read the book, but I’d like to now, because the movie seemed very cinematic, and I’d like to see how the story is handled in a literary format.

  • i read the book, more than a year or two ago now, and remember having the breath nearly knocked out of me by the ending… i actually had to re-read the last chapter twice to believe it! staggering and cruel yes, but unforgettable.

  • Miguel

    the book follows exactly the same structure.

    S

    P

    O

    I

    L

    E

    R

    the only ‘major’ change is the epilogue, in which Briony goes back to her family home and recounts what happened to all the characters.

  • Scott P

    No offense, but I will be pissed if Atonement wins the Oscar for Best Picture. It was good but could have been so much more. Cecilia & Robbie were together for about 30 seconds before being torn apart. Then we never even see Robbie in prison or see him do anything except walk around during WWII. They must’ve spent all the money on the beach scene so they decided not to create any interesting battle scenes.

    And please don’t get me started on the 50-year flash forward twist. All I could think about was the old lady in “Titanic”.

    My vote goes to There Will Be Blood. Juno 2nd, No Country 3rd, Clayton 4th, Atonement 5th.

    The Diving Bell & The Butterfly got royally screwed– not even a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film?!

  • Scott P

    Maybe I stumbled onto something with my criticisms about some missing pieces in Atonement. It is the ONLY Best Picture nominee in which the director is NOT also nominated. Maybe some members of the Academy didn’t like some of Joe Wright’s choices either.

    Looking at Atonement’s nominations, I just don’t see how it can be chosen as Best Picture. No nominations for the director, leading actor or leading actress. The girl will not win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Other nominations are for “biggies” like adapted screenplay, music, art direction, cinematography, & costume design.

  • MaryAnn

    Cecilia & Robbie were together for about 30 seconds before being torn apart.

    Yes. Exactly. That’s what’s so tragic about it.

    And please don’t get me started on the 50-year flash forward twist. All I could think about was the old lady in “Titanic”.

    The “old lady” is what makes *Titanic* the brilliant work of cinema that it is. It would have been just another disaster movie without the framing story. Likewise, the flash-forward in *Atonement* is what makes it genius, and much, much more than just another love story. It’s about why love stories are important.

  • Scott P

    So I guess we should have old lady flash-forwards in all love stories to make them better. In the theatre, it felt to me like they kind of stole the old lady premise from Titanic. But that’s just my opinion.

    I wanted to learn more about Cecilia & Robbie both before & after they were torn apart. But ultimately the story was about the girl so we only get brief glimpses of C&R, the heroine & hero.

    Similarly, I had connected to Lewellen Moss as the hero in No Country. But the Coens didn’t show us how our hero met his maker.

    I guess what we learned in 2007 is this– if you are a filmmaker & want to win a Best Picture Award in the US or England, just leave out some important shit & be mysterious. But I suppose there is a fine line between leaving some things open to viewer interpretation & just leaving some things out.

  • MaryAnn

    So I guess we should have old lady flash-forwards in all love stories to make them better.

    Yeah, that’s *exactly* what I said. You got it in one.

    I wanted to learn more about Cecilia & Robbie both before & after they were torn apart. But ultimately the story was about the girl

    Yes. Exactly. The story is about Briony.

    The film does not leave stuff out. It’s merely telling a different story than you think it is at first.

  • MBI

    The old lady scenes in Titanic are a framing device involving a main character and the old lady scenes in Atonement are a flash-forward involving a side character. They are quite unrelated.

    And on an unrelated note — god bless Briony Tallis for not changing her hairstyle once in seventy-plus years of life.

  • MaryAnn

    But, MBI, it’s *old ladies*! We cannot have movies about OLD LADIES! Who gives a shit about old ladies!

  • Scott P

    Sure seems like MBI was agreeing with you.

    I’m the dumb guy you’re trying to educate but I’m just too dense to get it. Oh well, the Academy was too dense to get it too considering the sole Oscar for Atonement was for its Score.

    I have a feeling that once all of these movies come out on DVD & are seen by the masses, Atonement will be loved, TWBB will become a classic & No Country will ultimately be called an Oscar-mistake.

  • MaryAnn

    Yes, I’m sure MBI was agreeing with you. My comment about old ladies was a response to your attitude, Scott P.

    And if you sincerely think that the only measure of a film’s quality and worth is how many Oscars it wins, you’re probably not gonna have a lot of fun at this site.

  • Atonement is a supremely wonderful picture. Finally a reviewer who gets it about Briony (though I do NOT love the middle Briony as much as the reviewer). We go to the theater for cathartic feelings even if you fall in love with the characters and feel cheated, so to speak. I didn’t feel cheated, for I feel they’re living in spirit (and I’m not a religious person) in the cottage by the sea forever. Briony did give them their happy ending and appropriately so, she should receive Atonement for that.

    Director Wright is a genius in this film for his style. Completely opposite of John Carney’s beautiful and minimal direction of ONCE, Wright uses the camera in opposite (still beautiful) ways, using new and innovative tricks; the replay of scenes through different points of view (which is really the main theme, who’s point of view are we watching); the gorgeous beach one shot scene (which, at least, should have given him the nomination and certainly the Oscar) and also the simplicity of the love scene with no music. How thoughtful and powerful!!!

    For THE GUY WHO related Atonement to Titanic; come on, two totally different pictures here!!! I think Atonement is a British person’s best picture (as it deservedly won at the Globes and the BAFTA’s) while No Country was better here. I also believe when the advertisers for Atonement started to try and relate it to youth of today and throw in the song, Apologize by Timbaland, STUPID and I almost started to not like it. BAD MOVE!!!

    ONE MORE NOTE::: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly was one of the worst and overly positive rated films in recent history, in front of Lost in Translation, Sideways and About Schmidt.

    THANKS>

  • black mumba

    strangely i agreed with a lot of the comments. immediately after the movie, all i felt was pissedness. i want punishment for the brat! what a ripoff! why did they have to throw in a happy ending that is blatantly false and excessively sugary? they fed us lies!… etc etc

    then when it all sinks in, you know it’s good, way better than one’s first impression. didn’t we all do some dumb thing in the past that we didn’t realize had such far-reaching consequences? isn’t a lifetime of guilt enough punishment?

    certainly it’s another tragic love story and of course one feels cheated that they don’t get together after we’ve rooted for them. but as was mentioned, it’s briony’s guilt that is central to the story. she lived for many years knowing she had not only thwarted cecilia and robbie’s love affair, she may have even contributed to their deaths.

    what one comes away with is the thought that nothing you can do will take away the guilt, not even a well-wrought fiction. also, in our hearts, we want to believe that enduring love is not fictional… that briony hardly needed to do them ‘a kindness’ by rewriting the end of the story. in their hearts they had always been together.

  • MaryAnn

    Somehow, I doubt that being “together” “in their hearts” was quite the same as actually being together.

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