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.
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.