First word of caution - don't read this review or see this motion
picture if you're easily depressed or if you're in a fragile view of
life. Atonement will just make things worse, Period.
Second... If you can't easily suspend belief for a couple of hours or
would find it impossible to believe that a 12 year old girl can ruin the
lives of two adults, this movie isn't for you, either. That's an idea
that works for supernatural motion pictures like "The Omen," but for a
movie that's supposed to be some-what true-to-life, that premise falls
apart under close scrutiny. No matter how affluent the family, no single 12
year old girl can destroy a upstanding young man on his way to medical school with just one lie,
when her older sister can testify to the contrary.
Besides those two issues, Atonement is a fedora shy of a perfect
movie. Highly recommended by me for being a well acted, scripted, filmed
and costumed period film. I wanted to hate this film because of the
first act's attempt at being a 1930's version of a Jane Austen parlor
drama and the over-reliance of flashbacks and showing us different
versions of the same scene to reveal to us one person's perspective versus "what
But "Atonement" works. It's a wonderful film and I envy everyone who
will see this movie for the first time after reading this review.
"Atonement" is an epic story that tells itself in 4 parts
revolving around a lie that destroys not only the person that is lied about,
but the liar herself. This motion picture is also a study in the concept
of "the truth" and how we believe things to be true just to make it
Briony is the youngest of an extremely wealthy family who live in
their own fairy tale castle. There's a beautiful metaphor about how
she's "really" in charge when in the opening scene we see her doll house
that is later revealed to be a
scale model of the mansion her family lives in. Briony a bit controlling,
constantly striving for attention by writing stories and plays.
Does she have a passion for being a
scribe or is it an attention gathering tool? She loves the lime light and the act of
weaving yarns, writing one poetic interpretation of what she saw earlier
between her sister and the house keeper's son, but by the end of
the motion picture writing become a means of forgiving herself by
rewriting the past.
We see a series of events, many of them twice, that lead to Robbie
Turner (played by
James McAvoy) wrongly accused of a horrible, violent act when he in
fact was doing something heroic elsewhere on the estate. For those of us who are
watching the movie, the 'misunderstanding' is both understandable and
shocking. The fact that he's accused is almost as horrific of the
violent act that was committed by someone else. The greatest crime is
that his life is destroyed based on the word of a 12 year old. Remember,
the one who likes to tell stories? Thought so.
The second act
tells us what happened a few long years later as England is deeply
embroiled in World War II.
Robbie Turner and the older sister that he's in love with, Cecilia (Keira
Knightley in her best and most mature roll to date,) share a few
brief moments together in a the middle
of the restaurant the two have a heartfelt conversation, filled with
exposition that covers all the ground that had been covered between
these two after we saw Robbie carted of to jail.
Cecilia still loves Robbie - passionately - and her relationship with
her family is hate filled for allowing him to go to prison for a crime
he couldn't possible commit. She cries out in a weird reserved British
way that she will wait for him.
In another scene and another exposition-filled lines we learn
that Robbie was
given the opportunity to serve in the armed forces as a private or
continue to rot in jail. We see what's left of his troop (it's just him
and two of his mates,) as they head north to regroup with the British Forces.
The arrive on this little beach in Belgium, a little known place called
Dunkirk that most kids these days have never heard of, where a vast
number of British service men wait for a rescue. History tells us that
this event was bittersweet - while 330,000 men were rescue, the British
Empire suffered one of it's most horrible defeats in it's long history.
Robbie, his two mates and 330,000 of their closest friends wait for a
rescue, our hero secretly nurses a secret wound. If the word got out
that he was caring around a piece of shrapnel in his chest, he would
have been abandoned with the
other wounded solders were almost left to die on the beaches
of Dunkirk. Robbie
can't let that happen, not because of his will to live but because of
his desire to see Cecelia again. Robbie is determined to pick up the
pieces of his life and be happy with this woman who had captured his
heart who gave up everything to be close to him. The sicker and more
infected his wound becomes, the more delirious he becomes. As his
delirium grows, he obsesses about
seeing Cecilia again, preoccupied with that thought that will keep him a
live. Just a little while longer...
In the next act, we see Briony as a much older teen, working as a
nurse-in-training and struggling with the hospitals hierarchy. While she
struggles with being a subordinate but she's also humbled after caring
around a ton of guilt and shame of what she did that night in her youth.
The lie she told weighing her soul down.
She defies the rules and shows some of the wounded solders more
comfort then the rules allow. While this was forbidden with all the
medical cases in the past, she is asked to
sit up with a man who had been badly burned in France and was part of
the evacuation of Dunkirk. As he
dies, the tears in her eyes reveals how she has more humanity now then we saw earlier
when she was the 12 year old writer at her family's estate. Perhaps the
guilt of what she did in the past made her want to atone for her sins,
and she strives harder then the rest to be a better person.
Later in this act, Briony goes to see her sister Cecilia in her
apartment, where Robbie is staying before heading back to France to
fight the Germans. Briony takes the verbal abuse from Robbie as he spews hatred. "Don't
you know what' you've done?" he asks. Briony knows now that what she did
was wrong, and she remembers who it really committed the crime she
witnessed and lied about, and
that the real predator of that crime will never face judgment.
Briony leaves, totally crushed knowing that she'll never be able to
undo the damage that she's done, never be able to completely atone for
her greatest sin. She leaves the two lovers alone, perhaps forever.
In the final act, we see a much older Briony played by Vanessa
Redgrave. Briony's final book "Atonement" is about to be released. And
in this book she fictionalizes the end of Robbie and Cecelia's story. We
find out through a television interview what really happened to these
two lovers, and why Briony had to make up a different ending... that
because of her they weren't allowed a "happily ever after." But if she
wrote a new one, and if all of her fans read this new ending, the way
their World War II story should have ended, then that would
have made things alright.
What Briony really wanted was to be chastised and condemned by
Bobbie, and that those two could finally have a life together. To live
with her grief, Briony made up a happy-ever-after. Being a nurse during
the war wasn't enough. Humbling herself by mopping floors and cleaning
out bed pans at the hospital wasn't punishment enough for her. Washing
her hands raw several times a day was never enough. Not enrolling in
Cambridge and taking another path in life wasn't enough. Nothing could
ever happen to Briony that would make up for what she did, nothing she
could ever do to herself could make it alright in the end so that she
could forgive herself.
This motion picture leaves us with some pretty
heavy questions. Most importantly, what does it mean to forgive, to
be forgiven, and can any of us forgive ourselves?
This was a personal film for me to watch because of my own demons
I'm still tormented by. I can relate to Briony since I made mistakes
that altered my life forever - for better and worse - based on what
I thought I knew and not was actually the truth.
I also know what it's like to have my life effected by a lie told
by someone else. My whole perception of "what's real" were put to
the test by someone who I thought I loved who told a series of embellishments;
told me what she wished was true and not actually the truth. What is a
man to do when a liar says "I know I've lied in the past and you've
caught me lying in the past but I'm telling the truth now..." What
do you do when a liar has said "I've lied, I'm lying almost all the
time, but I'm not lying in the past." What are you supposed to do
with that statement. Your head will explode trying to comprehend the
truth behind that sentence.
That is essentially what "Atonement" is - a period film that
explores the concepts and consequences of lies and liars.
If someone atones for their mistakes, misdeeds or sins - at what
point is that person supposed to forgive? At what point could Robbie
or Cecelia forgive Briony? At what point could Briony forgive
herself? Someone lied to and about me to get what she wanted and is
still milking the "grief" she felt over what happened all those
years ago and her lies still hurt to this day. Granted, my life is
far better now and moving on was the best thing that ever happened.
And what happens when there's atonement such as acts of
contrition, but no forgiveness? What then?
Atonement works as a movie about the 1930's and 1940's. There are
plenty of reasons why vintage aficionados will enjoy this motion
picture, both as a morality play and as a period film. There are
other aspects about this film I'm not sure I would tolerate or put
up with if it wasn't about "The Golden Era." If this was a movie
about hippies of the sixties or hipsters in the nineties I wouldn't
have given this a second thought.
"Atonement" works on a much higher level because it's a movie
about two people being denied happiness during a period of
struggles, loss and sacrifice. As the years will continue to pass
and The Greatest Generation continues to fade into the twilight, so
will that aspect of this motion picture. It's a haunting motion
picture that sometimes filmed like an accurate period film some
frames, and a beautiful nightmare the next. Aspects of this film
will crawl under your skin and make you insane for not appreciating
what you have. Thanks to Atonement, I love period films a more. And
I appreciate what I have with my own wife much more then that.