Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Half-Glimpsed Lies and Intrinsic Truths: A Very Human Atonement

In Film, Film Theory on May 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm

By Matt Smith

Briony and Cecilia Tallis, the sisters at the center of Atonement, Joe Wright’s sweeping romantic epic set in WWII-era England, are complex, realistic characters who wrestle with their identities as women, sisters, lovers and human beings – in other words, something that was once very rare for a big budget Hollywood picture. The film starts as a dual narrative, from the perspective of Briony and of Cecilia / Robbie, the gardener and friend of the family whom she is in love with. After a series of misunderstandings of Robbie’s intentions on the part of Briony (including a very explicit letter to Cecilia), Briony tells a lie which the ramifications of will haunt her until her final dies. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that we must rethink what we knew about everyone and each event that was carefully chronicled before as it examines the abandoned lives of its characters, and the nature of love, loss and, as the title implies, atoning for sins.

The film deals very bluntly, yet poetically, with the complex realities of being human: the second guessing, the selfish motivations, the assumptions made about others without knowing the facts, the damaging effects that even the smallest details can have on an entire generation. And yet it’s deeply personal, tied to very specific events and very specific types of relationships which shatter and splinter in myriad ways as the characters grow older and their lives shoot off in very different directions. In many ways it is a spiritual cousin to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another film that does a very good job of conveying the intricate mythologies we create about ourselves and the people we know, and realistically portraying them with all their beauty, ugliness and general human messiness.

Something the film gets right from the start is the often subtle hatred and jealousy that breeds sibling rivalry. Briony is jealous of her sister Cecilia: she’s older, has boys interested in her, is about to start her life – whatever else is imagined or real. When Briony, who has been left alone after a dispute with her cousins about the performance of a play she’s written for dinner guests that evening, spies her sister and Robbie through a window as Cecilia pulls herself soaking wet and in her underdress out of the garden fountain, she imagines Robbie to be forcing her to strip down and take a dip. The film cuts to the other perspective, showing Robbie’s breaking of a vase which infuriates Cecilia and which she voluntarily dives down to retrieve a piece of that has fallen in. The moment Briony has seen takes place after this, but in this case is a tender moment of embarrassment between two people who have not admitted their feelings to themselves, let alone one another.

When Briony reads a note from Robbie to Cecilia in which he explicitly details his thoughts about her, she is again shocked. Later, she walks in on Cecilia and Robbie in their father’s library, fucking (shot in gorgeously composed and intimate close-ups of hands, lips, eyes…) against a bookshelf, unable to control their passions any longer – and again we see the events leading up to that moment from the perspective of objectivity. After that note, and the library, when she finds her young cousin Lola being raped while the entire party is in the woods searching for some missing children, Briony sees exactly who is at fault: a visitor to her family’s estate. The fountain and the note point to his being some sort of sex maniac, and even though the film indicates otherwise, long before its last-act revelations, she tells the police that she saw Robbie doing it, and that he ran off in the woods.

The sheer complexity of the narrative so far, with its shifting perspectives, romanticism and jealousy, and the deep understanding afforded the relationships between the various main characters, is handled in such an assured manner that it becomes a breathtaking exercise in subjectivity, culminating in the break from this pattern when Robbie departs for the war in Europe after spending several years in jail and reunites with Cecilia, who has joined up as a nurse. The film really hits its romantic stride here, and leaves Briony behind, delving into the reigniting of the passion between Cecilia and Robbie, and for a while it looks like it may turn out well for the both of them: lovers found through the ages, never to part. But it’s not to be. This is, after all, the story of a tragedy, a betrayal by family, and the inadequate ways in which we attempt to correct our wrongs. Robbie and Cecilia aren’t meant to be any more than Germany was going to win the war.

But I digress.

This shifting to telling the story of Robbie and Cecilia’s romance on the front turns out not to be the grand story we’re lead to believe, eventually revealed to be the invention of Briony, who has married facts from her own experience into an imagined narrative that sees her sister and Robbie live happily ever after – something that never happened in reality.  It actually handles the upending of people’s lives very well, and gives us, the viewers, the sense of lives held in suspension, unable to continue, and very likely never going to.  Cecilia and Robbie seem to be very happy with one another, but who knows how long it will last, and how it will end up whenever it reaches the point of its finale?  World War II was an era of tremendous change, and the world was never the same afterward.  Fitting then that Briony has chosen this point to re-enter the story.

After taking up this portion, the film cuts back to Briony during her service as a nurse, and the secret nights spent writing, editing, and the ruthlessness with which she continues to act in the pursuit of her own interests. Cecilia is the free spirit, proclaiming her love with reckless abandon, Briony the calculating bitch. This may seem conservative in its approximation of female type, but the film’s ending reveals a further layer with which to understand the film: it’s a fabrication, a novel written by an older Briony that portrays each character as she feels about them now. Clearly Briony doesn’t like her younger self so much.

It turns out the film has been leading us here all along. Dario Marianelli’s score provides clues to this twist, with its use of a typewriter as percussion, associating itself pretty closely with Briony’s identifying trait of constantly writing stories and fictions (even lying in reality if it suits whatever she thinks she wants). It also becomes apparent that there are definite shifts in realities at certain points in the film, especially the scenes during the war, from which Robbie never really returns, but which provides Briony with her most developed sense of self, and which forces her to finally grow up a bit.

One of my favorite scenes ever is the confrontation between Briony and Cecilia during which she confesses her lies. Robbie, who is with Cecilia at this time, goes into a rage at Briony’s presence, and rightfully so. When Robbie is nearly ready to attack Briony for her great lie, Cecilia grabs him, telling him to come back to her. The scene continues, but it doesn’t matter: it’s this moment of tenderness, the tempering of the great rage which courses through Robbie that is important to Briony’s sense of personal atonement. Finally she is confronted with the brutal reality of her actions and the truth of the love between her sister and Robbie. And it’s all made up; fiction. The familiar clack-clack-clack of the typewriter comes back as Briony travels back hom on the train, its own clack-clack-clack marrying with the score and becoming indistinguishable. Finally reality splits from the narrative. It’s time for the truth.

The finale, which takes the form of a television interview with Briony, now publishing her 21st and final novel, also called Atonement, reveals a lot about the truth of the events, including the deaths of Robbie and Cecilia during the war, still separate and still very much alone. But its this scene that makes the whole thing for me, tying together the tenuous thread that demarcates the territories of reality and truth, which are entirely different things.

“I had for a very long time decided to tell the absolute truth; no rhymes, no embellishments,” she tells us, describing her research into the history. “But the effect of all this honesty was rather pitiless, you see. I couldn’t any longer imagine what purpose would be served by it. …By honesty, or reality.” For a work of fiction like Atonement, this sentiment is astonishing, getting to the transformative nature of narrative that transcends mere documentary work. This is perhaps why some of the best documentary work is produced by seasoned storytellers, many of whom share Werner Herzog’s interest in pursuing the intrinsic truth of a subject rather than the factual accounts. Cecilia and Robbie belonged together – that much is true in terms of the film’s story – but they were never given that chance. With her writing, Briony has finally been able to tell the story of hope that they never had in life, and has perhaps overcome her own self loathing for her role in all of it.

Atonement was not well-received by a lot of critics. A.O. Scott was particularly brutal in his assessment of the film, particularly as a literary adaptation, saying that it “fails to be anything more than a decorous, heavily decorated and ultimately superficial reading of the book on which it is based.” While I won’t touch the differences between the novel and its adaptation, I do want to finish by discussing what I think works for the film after giving it the further consideration of time and repeated viewing. Scott, among others, also notes that the film tends to fall apart in its foray into World War II, but for me that’s when it picks up.

Even disregarding the show stopping five minute shot at the beach in Dunkirk, which is shot with such meticulous attention to detail and poignant beauty that it’s easily a hallmark of extended single shot sequences of recent film history, the film knows exactly how to handle the disjointed, confusing relationships of its characters during a time in history when people really felt that way. If it feels like the film drags at this point, it’s because it does – its characters lives are perpetually on hold, and several of them never escape the war to live their lives.

Atonement, as the title suggests, is about making amends, and atoning for our sins. The muddled, swirling together of events, people and times that make up the overstuffed second act are simply representative of life itself. It’s messy, we make mistakes and we attempt to move past them, though sometimes that proves more difficult than others, and may take our entire lives. Briony Tallis finally overcomes her great sin at the end of her life, able to confront herself for the first time, and to attempt a truthful representation through her art of the inadequate nature of simply being human.

  1. Engaging article, and one that made me rethink this film. As I hinted to you when we talked, I wanted to like this film, and I think it’s beautiful to look at, but I found myself angry about it when I first saw it. This may be an adaptation problem, because it’s not the twist that bothers me in and of itself (Briony atoning through her work). Rather, there’s something in Briony’s fictional self-portrayal that still feels as though she’s trying to justify her actions, even as she “atones” for them, and in that respect, it’s a very self-serving novel she creates. In short, she’s still trying to win in her competition with her sister.

    Maybe that’s how many attempted acts of atonement turn out anyway, though. I had a Buddhism professor once who emphasized the components of the word “atonement” (at-one-ment), highlighting the fact that being at-one with oneself and others is the really hard part of this process. Apologizing is one thing. Being at peace with the consequences is quite another, and being at peace with standing openly and humbly before those we have hurt, all without the expectation of forgiveness, is the toughest. I wasn’t convinced that Briony was ever really at peace.

    And while I understand your point about the second act, A.O. Scott is right–the digressions of that section take all the steam out of the story, at least its cinematic version.


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