Monday, April 28, 2008

Atonement (2007)



The destruction caused by a single false accusation is the theme of the 2007 film Atonement, starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, based on the novel by Ian McEwan. A family tragedy, occurring one summer night at an English country estate, spirals into the horrors of World War II, almost as if the private debacle leads to the international conflagration. Of course it does not, but the film clarifies the message that personal sins have resounding consequences from which the innocent suffer.

The lie which separates young lovers Robbie (McAvoy) and Cecilia (Knightley) is precipitated by a variety of circumstances which could have been prevented. For one thing, the youngsters of the household, those visiting and those in residence, seemingly receive little supervision. If someone had been watching the twins, it would not have been so easy for them to run away. And why were two young girls like Briony and Lola permitted to run through the woods alone in the dark? Something terrible was bound to happen.

Of course, if Robbie and Cecilia had chosen to fornicate in a pantry or a closet rather than right there in the library, especially in a house full of guests and children and servants, much harm would have been avoided. Briony’s thirteen year old, morbid imagination is blamed for making so much of it. No doubt there are plenty of old married women who would be startled if they happened upon two people copulating in the book shelves. Glimpsing Lola being raped in the woods a few hours later was too much for the sensitive and sheltered girl, who then vents her turmoil upon poor Robbie.

In fact, Briony is made into quite the villainess although she is only a child, a bright child with an overactive imagination, left to her own devices. We hear constantly about “Catholic guilt;” perhaps Protestant guilt is far worse. If Briony had been able receive some spiritual direction from a confessor, hopefully she would have been told at some point to clear Robbie’s name, freeing herself from the consuming self-reproach. As she matures it becomes clearer to her that she had borne false witness, that she had misunderstood what she had seen in the woods. The deep implications of her lie sink into her soul so that she is prevented from blossoming as a woman, and remains even into old age an adolescent with a deer-in-the-headlights expression. She embraces the vocation of nursing out of guilt rather than from the desire to heal. She deprives herself of love, existing in the dream of Robbie and Cecilia’s thwarted romance. She is as much a victim of the crime as they are.

Subtly crafted, with every scene a work of art, the film flows from the chintz-draped manor house with its lush gardens to the blistering shores of Dunkirk. Keira Knightley must be the most emaciated actress who ever lived, but her diction is lovely and dark eyes, expressive. What a talented actor James McAvoy is, although I usually find him homely; in Atonement he is quite handsome. The costumes are perfection; the musical score hauntingly punctuated with the clicking of Briony’s typewriter. Or is it Robbie’s typewriter? The lewd note which he mistakenly sends to Cecila is a major disaster, especially in the wrong hands. Private pecadilloes and weaknesses are pebbles precipitating an avalanche in which all is lost. Share

10 comments:

Linda said...

Thanks for this review! I liked the movie better than the book. I thought the book was beautifully written but the emergence of the "author" I thought was contrived. In the movie it is somehow less obtrusive. Your review helps me better appreciate the story. I was also a bit shocked that her sister did not try to reassure Briony after the interruption in the library. I thought the overall neglect of Briony was a major source of the problem.

elena maria vidal said...

Exactly. Briony thought her sister was being attacked. She then thought that Lola was being attacked by the same person. It was an unfortunate but understandable mistake.

papabear said...

I thought it was more ambiguous than that, whether it was an honest mistake or not--there is a suggestion that she made the accusation also out of jealousy and because she was 'spurned'.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, papabear, jealousy predominated in the mix of emotions.

SF said...

Elena, have you seen the movie, Juno, written a review? I'd like to hear what you think of it. Susan

elena maria vidal said...

No, I haven't, Susan. But I will make a point of seeing it this weekend and writing a review. Thanks for the suggestion!

MyID.config.php said...

excuse moi this is a rather late posting - I didn't have an OpenID or thought I didn't until my hubby enlightened me!

Good point about the 'mere christian' (a la CS Lewis) lack of access to a concrete occasion for sacramental "atonement," (or incarnate person, Jesus Christ) that really pins it down for me (and it seems Fr Longenecker at Catjolic Online has similar issues with the Prince Caspian books and movei) --- Thanks so much for helping me reconcile in my head why I felt guilty to have thought the movie a good one when many orthodox Catholics "experts" critiqued it (and the book of course) for the way the mature author "hides" her guilt in a contrived "happy ending" for her fictional work.

IMHO the best art is that that has the courage to expose the rawness of vulnerability, the pain of the tragic, that ache of impotence to heal a wound, that unrequited longing for what we in our heart of hearts know is out there but cannot grasp... an open-ended honesty of grappling with imperceptible un-encountered (or fearfully out-maneuvered) grace...

I have come to appreciate JPIIs TOB insights when trying to unpack a narrative - to recognize in the mutual exchange of original solitude in an exclusive, indissoluble conjugal bond as the most profound expression of love granted to mankind outside of the Church -- and the author-within-the-author seems to agree, in that (s)he senses her sister and putative brother in law were owed such a destiny, and yet all of the other material reflects what transpires in real life to obstruct us from attaining our true flourishing, and sometimes it takes a lifetime to realize it...

With God's grace this movie could help many of the "secular" faith-deniers to see the difference between sentimentality and sensibility -- the dignity of the protagonists is never in question (they just trip over their own carnal natures and fall prey to the destructive forces of evil let loose on the world during wartime). The trick of the closing scenes is to leave one unsure as to what degree they freely chose, and then lived with, personal sacrifices gifted for the beloved's benefit, and to what degree they were robbed of (or denied themselves) the opportunity to "be all that they could be" -- incidentally something each and everyone of us has to confront when we examine our consciences, daily, no?

Truely a great phenomenological personalist meditation on life and love!

Thanks again Elena Maria!

P.S. I trust my contributions to the online Catholic thread didn't offend -- present company excepted from any 'self-serving' critique I leveled in my 'cave' posts there

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Clare, for the helpful insights about the film, expressed with your usual eloquence.

No, your comments on the other thread about Lewis did not offend at all; you have a right to your opinion and everyone does not have to like everything. Some people just do not get into Lewis and/or Tolkien and that's fine.

+JMJ+ said...

As always, I love the way you write!

This too is one of my favorite movies of recent time.

Themes of seeking redemption always appeal to me.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Alison!