A few brief thoughts on this film, which I saw last night. First of all, it is just as exquisitely made as Joe Wright’s last film, 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. Like that film (also starring Keira Knightly and based on a beloved book), Atonement is chalk full of sumptuous costumes, sets, and luxuriant camera movement. The film is as stylish and artistically superior as anything you’ll see this year.
There is one incredibly beautiful single shot sequence in particular—at the bombed-out beach city of Dunkirk. It’s at least five minutes long and the roving camera effortlessly captures an eye-popping array of fluid sights and sounds. It’s one of those sequences that only the cinematic artform can capture, and at times like these the film offers something Ian McEwan’s novel cannot: a jaw-dropping experience of sight, sound, space and time.
But more than the striking artistry of this film (and its great performances), I was most affected by the final ten minutes in which-without spoiling it—the entire story is thrown into doubt. Or, I should say, the film re-defines itself as more than just an epic love story, but as a meditation on the nature of art and storytelling.
What are the personal or psychological motivations to tell stories or make art? Is it for the benefit of others? Or is it to make amends with ourselves and atone for our former sins? And in telling stories, is fidelity to “how it was” really as important as making the story as whole and fulfilling as possible?
In addition to raising all of these questions, Atonement seems to be emphasizing the formalist split between story and plot (fabula and syuzhet, to use Russian formalist terminology). That is, the “reality” of what the author intends to express (the “plot”) and the seemingly arbitrary interpretation/construction of the reader or viewer (the “story”). With a film like Atonement, there are at least three realities going on at any given moment: the reality of what actually happened (presumably in the life of the author), the reality of the author’s portrayal of it (which in this case is admittedly skewed and subjective), and the reality of the audience (which is always different, viewer to viewer). Atonement weaves a gorgeous, epic and tragic tale, but it intentionally undermines itself by questioning the truthfulness of perspective, memory, and reconstructed reality.
Oddly, after I left the theater my thoughts went to Harry Potter. Specifically I was thinking about J.K. Rowling’s recent announcement that the headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, is and always has been a homosexual. When she made the stunning announcement I immediately thought, “hey, what right does she have to make Dumbledore gay?” But then I thought that just because she says he is doesn’t mean he is in my construction of that world. After all, the “reality” of Potter world in Rowling’s mind is not necessarily ever the same as mine, or any other reader. Art—even if it is objectified (and mass-reproduced)—is always subjectively experienced and interpreted. Thus, its “reality” is never as concrete as we think (or hope) it is. Rowling can say Dumbledore is gay all she wants—and even write him that way if she wishes… but the fact is, he is only an idea on pages. He is whatever the reader makes him to be.
The word “atonement” means “at one” and is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.” In the novel and film, the character of Briony (who is ultimately revealed to be the author of the novel, Atonement) is trying to achieve a peace and at-oneness by “playing God” and reconciling herself to the worlds she has shattered. But the tragedy of it all is that she is only “God” within the pages of her fictional accounts and reparative revisionism. Fiction can help heal, but it can never alter history. Or maybe it can—depending on how you define “history.”