Dr. Anthony Manganaro turns a writerly eye to Atonement, a film he feels no need to atone for enjoying ten years on.
Eighteen minutes in, Robbie (played by James McAvoy) is lying in a bathtub and staring into the square of a window on the ceiling. It’s the sunniest day in the world in Britain in 1935, and Robbie is feeling a bit too perfectly in love with Cecelia (played by Keira Knightley). Then a military airplane flies through the center of the window.
It’s scenes like these that make Atonement memorable in good and bad ways. The scene is overly symbolic: It’s too filmic, too neat, and feels too obviously like a memory; this is what they call a “screaming symbol” in Storytelling 101, i.e. when does this actually happen in real life?
Then again, what’s this movie about, anyway? Oh, right … memory. Screaming symbols. The need to tell stories to heal old wounds. In that respect, little scenes like that—where the window is just too square and Robbie is just too happy—make perfect sense. Life’s imperfect, art helps, etc.
We’re getting this, we learn, from the viewpoint of Briony, our somewhat hidden narrator, played by Saoirse Ronan (at 13), Romola Garai (at 18), and Vanessa Redgrave (at 77). When I saw this film in 2007, I was struck by Redgrave’s performance at the very end: I’d never seen a character tell the audience so candidly about what she was lying about and why she was lying about it. We’ve all seen The Usual Suspects where Verbal Kint reveals some lies and then a coffee mug breaks—again, and again, and again—but Verbal is evading something entirely whereas Briony, in twisting the truth, is consciously enriching herself and the lives of others. She’s telling us why stories matter, as in the end of The Things They Carried when Tim O’Brien reveals that “Tim [is] trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”
If that sounds lame, the conclusion of Atonement is remarkable precisely because of how un-lame and un-awkward the ending actually is, despite it being told decades into the future with 1) a fast cut to multiple television screens, 2) a purple background with a bald interviewer, and 3) an entirely new actor reinterpreting, very explicitly, her version of the truth. This scene could easily have flunked, and it’s hard to tell why it doesn’t. Future-forwards are not easy to pull off, but when they work (as in a particularly weepy moment of HBO’s Six Feet Under) they can be devastating. When they don’t work, of course, they can sink a film.
My siblings thought it sunk the film. I watched this with them ten years ago, and as we left the crowded theater, I said something like, “Well, that’s the best movie of the year.” There was a pause, before my sister asked if I meant another film. My brother was similarly confused. “You mean this film?” We kept up a weird pace in a crowded shopping mall, full of Santa Clauses, while I continued to rave about the “stupendous” ending and they continued asking if I meant this film.
My siblings and I agree on films to a weird degree of consistency—we rank our top movies routinely and they’re always the same, etc.—so I legitimately took this seriously: if they didn’t like Atonement, what was wrong with me as a human being? But ten years later, you get more intelligent by learning to not feel bad about your artistic tastes: If you liked the film, you liked the film, end of story, damn it! And when I re-watched it last week, I re-realized its strengths. (It’s amazing, in that sense, how little your tastes change over the years—it’s one of the few pleasing consistencies in life. Case in point: as much as I love the Coen Brothers, and as much as I understand the hypothetical appeal of their ‘masterpiece,’ I still find No Country for Old Men incredibly boring.)
Atonement still holds up, I think. The opening 50 minutes are riveting to most audiences—in keeping within the bounds of a single location with limited players, all with high and obvious stakes, the story stays focused and tense, thanks partially to the film’s Oscar-winning score. You’re holding your breath the entire time. If this were the opening episode of a TV series, you’d say, “Next! Next!” And the end, as previously mentioned, is surprisingly tactful.
But what’s with that middle? That large, vague swath of time that tries to cover World War II in different locations with sweeping majesty but always feels a bit, well … what’s the word for boring and pointless? The worst shot in the film, in my opinion, is when Robbie suddenly walks through a forest to find dead schoolgirls lying near a tree; the second-worst is the five-minute tracking shot of Dunkirk that likely cost more than five trillion dollars to shoot. Both scenes are cinematographic masterpieces with little feeling behind them; worse, they tell the viewer “innocence is lost” and “war is chaos” way too blatantly (the words might as well be splayed, in capital letters, across the screen). The Dunkirk shot is too much about a young director trying to claim that he belongs alongside Stephen Spielberg & Co.—the result is that the audience thinks about “Joe Wright” while losing track of the story.
Scenes like these, in assuming grand importance, pull the film down from “great” to “good.” Quite simply, the war stuff doesn’t work—and if it does, it works because it strips us of feeling, the way Keira Knightley and James McAvoy do excellent jobs looking detached and dejected through the middle sections of the film. But that still leaves the audience detached, dejected, and, worst of all, bored—like the leads, we are grasping for clarity and meaning, but the result (for us) is wanting to take a pee break.
Ironically, the reason for the deadening middle might be because of its shorter length—a point some reviewers have made. The middle, quite simply, feels rushed, which is interesting considering this is advertised as a “sweeping epic,” wanting to be in the category of The English Patient. The movie is a condensed 122 minutes, but could be longer, and it’s here where audiences might drift off, thinking, “You know, this is probably a fabulous novel.” In many cases, a longer length is warranted for films: the extended cut of The Fellowship of the Ring, for instance, is way more natural, realistic, and well-paced than the “short” three-hour version. (TV dramas, of course, have more of this luxury.) As for Atonement, the squashed middle makes me lose my focus, especially once we depart from the crystallized beginning.
Yet of course, that’s part of the point, and that’s why the ending saves the film. As screenwriting guru Syd Field once said (actually, he says it on every page of his books): “Know Your Ending”; i.e. you can’t know your beginning without knowing your ending, as they’re sides of the same coin. That brief sequence of war shots during the slog of the middle—the scattershot way the film ping-pongs around from beach to hospital—is not utter realism where we’re supposed to feel the bitter moment-to-moment reality of the war experience (as in Platoon or Saving Private Ryan) but is rather purposefully disorienting, foggy, and even (deliberately?) boring in its lack of coherence. The middle is foggy precisely because the beginning was so incredibly clarified and zoomed-in to the point of feeling like a finalized film of its own. Like the characters, we want that beginning again, which is what the ending gives us. And, in a deft move, we realize who the true protagonist is: neither Robbie nor Cecelia, but rather the watcher Briony, who explains why she told the story that way.
This is a good book, apparently. I’ll check it out at some point, but I don’t find book/movie comparisons very interesting—yes, one is more impactful than the other, because the mediums are different, etc. For me, despite its imperfect middle, the film tells a difficult story in bold/brave fashion and is consistently visually compelling. Kudos, too, to McAvoy and Knightley: two of their best performances to date. Let’s see the sequel. Oh wait, everyone’s dead.